Seydou Keita: Sean Kelly Gallery

By Richard, Frances | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Seydou Keita: Sean Kelly Gallery


Richard, Frances, Artforum International


Seydou Keita, "the Bresson of Bamako," died in 2001, leaving a body of work specific to the postcolonial, urban Mali of the 1950s and '60s. But Keita's story--from his experience as a self-taught photographer catering to a regional clientele, to the nonpareil portraits that constitute his legacy, to the bitter struggle now raging for control of his estate--also frames discussion of his oeuvre as a parable about photography itself.

The prints exhibited recently are posthumous and had not been seen before. But while their exhibition may have been a political move in the estate battle (of which more below), the photographs still speak about their sitters and about the artist who helped them to represent themselves as cosmopolitan individuals held in a matrix of familial, tribal, national, and symbolic relations. As Manthia Diawara has observed, "To go before Keita's lens is to pass the test of modernity." To stand before his pictures now is to take the test again. How do we recognize this quality called "modern"? How do we distinguish it from "traditional"? The same questions apply to related pairings: sophisticated/naive; African/Euro-American; collective/individual; authentic/inauthentic.

The thirty-one untitled prints at Sean Kelly Gallery were produced under the auspices of the Association Seydou Keita in Mali, which is in conflict with the Geneva-based Pigozzi Collection about who has the rights to Keita's negatives. The wrangle inevitably tinges any considered response to the new pictures, which were culled from the Association's archive. They look like second choices and probably are, since Keita presumably picked his favorites when in the early '90s the Pigozzi's curator, Andre Magnin, arranged to bring to Europe a group of negatives now at issue in the custody battle. Keita had fallen out with Pigozzi and Magnin before his death, and even prints produced before 2001 now seem to fall under the dispute's cloud, which involves disagreement about everything from the scale of the images to the intensity of their contrast. …

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