Praises to Malick Sidibe. Haven’t heard of him? Think James Van der Zee, Gordon Parks and Bert Andrews–magicians in the world of photography. Unlike these notable American photographers who have chronicled Black America, the images of Sidibe are those that portray the people of Mali, the third largest producers of gold in Africa. And what a priceless treasure!
Sidibe, the esteemed winner of the 2007 Venice Biennales Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award, is celebrated in the documentary film, “Dolce Vita Africana,” directed by Cosima Spender. Presented on April 9, the closing day of the 20th New York African Film Festival, the benchmark documentary was screened at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York City.
Born in the village of Sololha around 1935 or 1936, Sidibe is the foremost photographer of Mali’s popular youth culture of the late 1950s through the 1970s in Bamako, the nation’s capital. His images, which have been described as “iconic,” depict “the carefree spirit of this generation asserting their freedom after independence up until an Islamic coup ushered in years of military dictatorship.”
Shot in black and white, “Dolce Vita Africana” captures the town’s people, fashion and lifestyle as Spender’s sharp lens takes viewers on a mind-blowing trip back to a time when culture was supreme in this noble land, which, during its glory days in the 14th century, was known as the Mali Empire. This era boasted cities such as Djenne and Timbuktu, which were the hub of trade and pre-eminent Islamic intellectual learning.
Today, this great literary tradition is passed on orally, and the musical traditions are preserved by the griots, who are recognized as “keepers of memories,” and Sidibe’s innocent, moment-in-time studio portraits serve as “exercise for the soul.”
And what a work out! “Dolce Vita Africana” impressively takes us back in time to Bamako into Sidibe’s world, where viewers are introduced to the Gerard Guillat-Guignard’s Photo Service Boutique-trained photographer in his studio, which contains a vast archival collection of his photographs. Later, Spender’s flashback also unveils a spirited reunion with Sidibe, friends and clients who reminisce about their early 20s and teen years as they tell their personal stories.
This leads up to planning a big reunion fete where the men–most of whom are Muslims–are told to “bring their favorite wife.” This generates laughter from the men who joke about which of their wives to bring. Sidibe, who has four wives (others have two, three or more), shares that although he does not have a lot of money, he is at peace because they are able to clothe and feed their families.
Adding to the film is a rich fusion of Malian music that colors the soundtrack,
enhancing the dances, fashion and athletic games enjoyed by the youth of the period.
Sidibe acknowledged his mother for being the great inspiration in his life. “Where you are from does not matter,” he shared. “It has to do with what you make of yourself.”
In the significant film “Dolce Vita Africana,” Sidibe says: “When you are old and dead, there’s nothing left.” However, in the case of Mali’s renowned photographer, there is. Through his beautiful, one-of-a-kind photos, Sidibe will always be remembered as the man who chronicled the history of a special and uplifting era in Mali.