Twenty years ago, a retired Malian portrait photographer called Seydou Keita sat at home in Bamako, quietly tinkering with his motorbike, when a Paris art dealer came knocking on his door.
Today, a decade after his death, Keita is perhaps Africa’s most revered photographer, and his stylish studio snaps are a highlight of this year’s Paris Photo fair, which opened Thursday with a focus on the continent.
Art dealer Andre Magnin, one of 117 international exhibitors taking part in the four-day event in Paris’ Grand Palais, tracked Keita down after stumbling upon an anonymous portrait in a New York photo exhibition in 1991.
"At Bamako airport I showed the picture to my taxi driver, who took me to the only photo studio he knew," Magnin recalled. "The photographer there immediately recognized it as Keita’s work."
By then in his 70s, Keita had been retired for years when Magnin turned up on his doorstep. Together they dug out his archives, a precious record of the shifts in Malian society from the 1940s to 1960s, and offered them up to the world in a hit exhibit in Paris in 1994.
For his studio shots, Keita would lend his models hats, coats, jewelry, even bulky transistor radios, the preserve of the middle classes— widening his market to humbler folk who could suddenly pay to look wealthy for a day.
"Seydou Keita is considered one of the great masters of the portrait, and yet he had never read a book in his life," Magnin said. "The positioning of the hands, the way the models looked: he invented it all from scratch."
Meanwhile the first studio Magnin had stopped by, it turned out, belonged to a young man called Malick Sidibe — who is today acknowledged as another of the biggest names in African photography.
And with photos that sell for €1,200 to €6,000 ($1,600 to $8,000) a shot, Malick Sidibe provides a living for thousands back home, in the town of Bougouni south of Bamako, donating new farm machines and even a bus route, Magnin says.
Apartheid’s fall brought new energy
Both Malians are among 44 African artists on show at Paris Photo, displayed by South African galleries and a dozen from Europe, and in a special exhibit staged by the New York- and Germany-based Walther Collection.
With the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1991, the decade marked a watershed for photography in the country and beyond.
"Work shot under the regime suddenly came out into the open," explained Julian Frydman, the director of Paris Photo. "And from then on photographers were free to tackle new areas like gender, identity and territorial questions."
South Africa’s Zanele Muholi, for instance, spotlights gay rights with two striking portraits of a statuesque black man in red heels, one in a little black dress, the other naked save for a traditional beaded belt and collar, against a parched, dusty backdrop.
Paris Photo is also hosting a guest exhibit from the Bamako Meetings photography fair, which opened on Nov. 1 in the Malian city and which has showcased African work to an international audience since 1994.
"African photography today is rarely just about aesthetics," said Laura Serani, co-artistic director of the Meetings. "Emerging African photographers have a great creative energy, and often a strong sense of commitment."
Much of the work on show in Paris has a documentary slant to it.
At times the reality on display is harrowing, as with South Africa’s Pieter Hugo who chronicles conditions in a rubbish dump in the Ghanaian capital Accra, where scores of people pick apart electronic waste from the West, poisoning themselves in the process.
But more often the work portrays Africans at home and at play, from the wild nights of 1970s Kinshasa, shot by the night owl Depara, to the pop-colored street styles snapped by South Africa’s Nontsikelelo Veleko.
South Africa’s Michael Zubotsky captures the everyday of Johannesburg’s black middle classes, with a cityscape shot through the net curtains of a high-rise apartment, or two sisters playing in the family kitchen.
And the Nigerian J.D Okhai Ojeikere spent 30 years crisscrossing his country on bicycle, photographing women’s braided hairstyles, each captioned with an elaborate title from the "Pineapple Kiko" to the "Roundabout."
"There are hairstyles here that take 48 hours to complete, which are worn once in a lifetime," explained Magnin. "He wanted to record it all. It is both about anthropology and aesthetics."