The Eye of Bamako

Posing in the Studio, 1975

Cousins, 1975
My new dress, 1975

Flowers and a Motorcycle, 1975

Malick Sidibé is an exuberant photographer who captured the spirit of a generation of young Malians in the euphoric decades following the country's independence from France in 1960. Born in the mid 30s in what was then French Sudan, Sidibé did not go to school until the age of 10 but showed such promise that he was ordered by the colonial governor to attend the prestigious Écoles des Artisans Soudanais. He opened his Studio Malick in 1962, capturing the buoyant young Malians in lush black and white portraits. In an interview with the Guardian recently, Sidibé recalled, "The studio was like no other. It was...relaxed. I did formal family shots, too, but often it was like a party. People would drop by, stay, eat. I slept in the developing room. They'd pose on their Vespas, show off their new hats and trousers and jewels and sunglasses. Looking beautiful was everything. Everyone had to have the latest Paris style. We had never really worn socks, and suddenly people were so proud of theirs, straight from Saint Germain des Prés!"

Sidibé still takes photographs occasionally. "I stick with black and white, and film." In his opinion, in order to be a good photographer, you have to have "a talent to observe, and to know what you want. You have to choose the shapes and the movements that please you, that look beautiful...It's a world, someone's face. When I capture it. I see the future of the world."

Looking at these wonderful photographs (all of which were taken in 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended with the disastrous defeat of South Vietnam, forcing us to become refugees in the United States), I can't help but make the connection to what I know of Vietnam and its own tangled history with colonial France. Political and economic independence was hard won, but the cultural influence of France lived on in these people's lives, much like in Vietnam. My father spent his entire youth fighting for the independence that came with the decisive defeat of the French in 1954. Yet French culture remained a lasting influence in Vietnam. As children, we were sent to the Centre Culturel Français and learned to speak French. We listened to French music and read French novels, and like the subjects of Sidibé's photographs, relished French fashion. My cousins went to university in Paris. In a final ironic twist of fate, my father lay on his deathbed in California dreaming of his homeland, whose image he expressed to me in French.

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