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You Look Beautiful Like That: the Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. (eye).

You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe by Michelle Lamuniere Yale University Press September 2001 $22.95 ISBN 0-300-09188-5

Whoever said, "A picture is worth a thousand words," understated the impact of a compelling image. The portraits in You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe speak volumes, and not only about the subject of the image or the aesthetic elements of the photographic art form. What these pictures capture individually, and more so collectively, is a culture in transformation. Surprisingly, neither Keita nor Sidibe had such grand designs in mind when they began.

The photos depict portraits from the 1950s to the 1970s, a period of great transition for many newly independent African nations. In French Sudan, as Mali was known before 1960, the principal agent of change was post-colonial freedom. With it came a question of self-definition. If you were no longer a subject of the French republic who were you?

Complicating the issue of national identity was the rise of a distinct and separate youth culture. Into this heady mix, add a relatively new element--the African photographer. It is in this changing environment that Malian photographers Keita and Sidibe did most of their work.

Before there were Africans behind the camera, the images of Africans tended to be little more than stereotypes and "exotic" fantasies meant for consumption by non-Africans. The sense of re-definition and affirmation of self can be seen in the photographs by Keita and Sidibe of reclining women wrapped in traditional African textiles, or the man in his European suit and tie juxtaposed against his traditional tribal markings. There is the photograph of the three rural shepherds awkwardly trying to usher in the modern age holding studio-supplied radios. Another favorite is simply titled "Friends of Spain."

If you ever wondered how the brothers in Mali reacted to the psychedelics of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, look no further. In comparison to the photographs taken earlier in the century by European photographers whose subjects seem uncomfortably aware that they are objects on display, the posers in Sidibe and Keita's works seem to say, "I am." In response, the camera answers, "And you look beautiful like that."

--Gregory Woods is a photographer and writer living in northern California.
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Author:Woods, Gregory
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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