In the 1990s, two photographers from Mali burst onto the international art scene. Seydou Keïta (who is currently featured in a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris through July, 2016) and Malick Sidibé (who passed away in April) are arguably the country’s most highly acclaimed visual artists, and their influence has been far-reaching. They left a powerful legacy for a new generation of African photographers and reinforced the country’s identity. They also brought attention to Bamako as the beating heart of African photography. The city has played host to the pan-African biennale of photography since it launched in 1994.
Yet Keïta and Sidibé were not the only notable West African photographers of their day. As the world fawned over their work, Hamidou Maiga, a peer, friend, and sometime-collaborator of Sidibé, was also photographing prolifically in Mali. Having started out in the early 1950s, studying photojournalistic techniques, Maiga set up his first professional studio in 1958, in N’Gouma, a village in Mali’s Mopti region, shooting on a medium-format Souflex camera.
Just five years ago, some two decades after Sidibé and Keïta began to exhibit throughout Europe and the U.S., London-based art dealer Jack Bell came across Maiga’s archive of negatives. Bell quickly recognized the importance of the work, and gave Maiga—who is in his 80s, and lives and works in Bamako today—his first solo exhibition, “Talking Timbuktu,” that year. Though interest was piqued, Maiga’s body of work remains relatively unexplored in the West. Now, 36 black-and-white photographs from Jack Bell’s Maiga collection are to go on display in a rare solo exhibition at Museo Mario Testino (MATE), the fashion photographer’s museum in Lima, Peru, opening July 7th.
It is the first appearance of Maiga’s work in Latin America, and part of an ongoing series initiated by the museum that features masters of photography. The exhibition, titled “La ruta del Níger: de Mopti a Tombuctú,” will draw attention to the nomadic aspect of Maiga’s practice. Having refined his art in Mopti, Maiga became one of the first photographers to take a camera to the Niger region, traveling the route of the Niger River with a mobile studio and photographing local people—some of whom had never seen a camera before.
The exhibition will also draw a thread between Maiga’s practice in Africa and the rich tradition of itinerant photographers in Peru, such as Martín Chambi, the Vargas brothers, and Juan Manuel Figueroa Aznar—all of whom also captured their country’s changing traditions and peoples. As MATE’s cultural director Jimena Gonzalez explained in an email, presenting Maiga’s work alongside photographers from other regions frames it within a broad swathe of photography, showcasing “the diversity of the aesthetic and visual language that comes from historical, modern, and contemporary photography, and from cultures of various origins and ways of seeing the world.”
Shot between 1962 and 1973, most of the images on view in the exhibition were taken at the famous studio Maiga opened in 1960, in Timbuktu. It was a time of transition for Mali, which gained independence from France that same year. Maiga’s portraits from this period function as visual documents that capture the atmosphere of this moment in the country’s history—a tumultuous era that was nonetheless full of optimism, enthusiasm, and hope. His work has always been of, and for, the Malian people.
For a decade, Maiga’s Timbuktu studio was a vibrant meeting place frequented by the sports stars, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and dignitaries he photographed. The subjects populating Maiga’s images wear eclectic styles, fusing old and new, and African and Western influences. Some adopted the poses of pop cultural figures they liked, smoked cigarettes, or held radio transmitters, shot against painted botanical backdrops.
Many of his compositions suggest a modern West African reinterpretation of 19th-century portrait photography in Europe, but Maiga’s deep formal command of his medium and interest in strong contrasts are evident in the works. He constructed every detail during his shoots in order to coax out the possibilities of the black-and-white print. The resulting photographs are highly stylized and symbolic, perhaps, of a new era of self-determination in Malian society.
“La ruta del Níger: de Mopti a Tombuctú” is on view at MATE, Jul. 7–Oct. 2nd, 2016.