In the 1950s and 60s, a colourful collection of inhabitants of Bamako, capital of Mali, posed for Seydou Keïta, one of Africa’s most renowned photographer. People visited Keïta’s studio to have their picture taken at their best: wearing extravagant dresses made from wonderful textiles with splendidly formed headdresses, or posing in a modern Western suit with a bow tie, leaning against a motorcycle, or with a radio tucked under their arm.

His oeuvre reflects a portrait of an era that captures Bamako’s transition from a cosmopolitan city in a French colony to the proud capital of independent Mali.

Keïta’s remarkable archive of over 10.000 negatives came to light in 1992 after a discovery by André Magnin, the then-curator of Jean Pigozzi’s contemporary African art collection. Modern prints were printed from the negatives with Keïta’s collaboration, allowing his work to be introduced to the art world. International fame quickly followed.

The inventiveness of the mise en scene, the modernity of the photographs and the fresh approach to the subjects photographed, made Keïta a celebrity in his own country and beyond. These photographs are an important record of Malian society’s evolution at the end of the colonial period. In other times, the subjects would have considered as anthropological exhibits, but here they have regained their identities, taking their rightful place at the heart of each work.

1991 was a decisive year for Keita: It was that year, in New York on the occasion of the exhibition Africa Explores: Twentieth Century African Art, that André Magnin and the great collector of African art Jean Pigozzi discovered uncredited photographs of striking beauty. On behalf of the collector, André Magnin set out for Bamako where he finally met Seydou Keïta.

He returned with several negatives of photographs shot by the artist, which immortalized a wide range of social classes from the population of Bamako. For the first time outside their country of origin, around forty of these photographs were exhibited at the Cartier Foundation in 1994. This personal exhibition was a huge success: more than 2000 visitors came on the opening day, celebrating a body of work that would soon gain international recognition.

But what were people really seeking when they had themselves photographed by Seydou Keïta? Why were they so eager? Why did long queues form daily behind the central prison in Bamako-Coura (“New Bamako”) district? It is enough to simply look at his photographs to appreciate effect of natural light falling on the clasped or relaxed hands of his subjects; to let one’s eye explore the chiaroscuro on these oblique faces, whose gaze matches our own or turns away slightly with great elegance.

In his quest for beauty or even perfection, Seydou Keïta seeks the most advantageous posture, and every detail had its own importance. His clients could choose from numerous accessories such as Vespa scooters, bicycles, transistor radios, jewelry and African or European clothing, all of which proliferated in his studio as a testament to the artist’s economic success. Many of the men chose to pose in European clothing, like the four clients lined up with their hands casually in their pockets or the small boy with a beret, leaning against a bicycle. Many earlier photographs lined the walls of his studio to inspire the poses of future clients.

These different attitudes combined with the various accessories were a way of achieving a certain economic or social status or of granting oneself privileges previously reserved for whites. In a nutshell, everything was arranged to match the image that each subject wished to convey.

The work of Seydou Keita is represented by Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris // Current exhibition: “Seydou Keita”, 3, rue du Cloître Saint-Merri – 75004 Paris.