Preserving the past, promoting the future.
I first met Malick Sidibé back in 2007 at the Bamako Encounters, a biennial photography festival held in Mali’s capital. I remember fondly how he sat in a chair in the middle of the National Musuem of Mali while photographers from all across Africa approached him, our photography king, with greatest respect and appreciation.
I had long admired the work of Mr. Sidibé myself, as well as the massive archive he had accumulated during his lifetime; he wasn’t just a studio photographer, but a soul who maintained a conviction to document his people through a lens that offered a different perspective — one of dignity, elegance, beauty and pride.
So as I approached him that day, I wanted to kiss his knees as a gesture of respect for an elder, as is typical in my Ethiopian tradition. He asked where I was from, and when I responded, he took me by surprise and told me that he, too, is from Ethiopia. Throughout my stay in Bamako, I discovered how much of Ethiopia is indeed in Mali, and I realized the truth more deeply of Mr. Sidibé’s words; that as Africans, there are more things that bind us, and even if history has divided us, we still remain connected through the remnants of the past.
Mr. Sidibé provided that very connection for many of us photographers across the continent, keeping us linked to the past through the moments of time etched in his iconic black-and-white portraits.
History may know Mr. Sidibé as the 2010 World Press winner and, more importantly, the first photographer from Africa to win the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award at the Venice Biennale in 2007. His long journey in photography began after attending the École des Artisans Soudanais in 1952, and he later became a photographer for the Gérard Guillat studio in Bamako, documenting the vibrant city’s nightlife with his Brownie Flash camera. In 1958, he set up his own studio, which still remains as a source of pride — both for his community and for those of us who for so long have esteemed his work. Filled with shelves of old cameras and boxes of negatives, Mr. Sidibé’s small studio seemed to represent a place in which time stopped and the spirits of all those he’d photographed still lingered.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to participate along with Mr. Sidibé in the European Union’s “African Week-Intercultural Dialogue” in Brussels. It gave me great pride to see his portraits sprawled across the EU compound in magnificent sizes — giving testament to the undeniable strength of his style and approach. Mr. Sidibé knew how to bring out the best in all, and as the saying goes, the photographer doesn’t take the photo, but the sitter, in this sense, gives it. Mr. Sidibé was not just a photographer but also a charismatic soul who saw through each of us to the depths of our beings.
Mr. Sidibé’s passing is one that fills the photography community with great sadness, but we also know that traces of him will not only continue on in the remnants of his abundant archives and the collections held in museums across the world, but also in each of us whom he inspired. We stand on his shoulders and strive to continue his journey, capturing our own memories of Africa for the future.
Aida Muluneh is an Ethiopian photographer based in Addis Ababa, and a champion for photography across the continent. She founded and directs the biennial Addis Foto Fest and regularly mentors students through the DESTA for Africa Foundation.