Seydou Keïta

Art is Beauty

Seydou Keïta worked from 1948 to 1962 as a freelance photographer in Bamako, Mali. His studio was one of the most popular in town, just as the one run by the somewhat younger Malick Sidibé. On Saturdays, people actually queued up outside the door, Keïta recalls. In the course of his lifetime he produced around 30,000 portraits.

In the 1950s, photography was still a major event in Africa, he recounts. Having your picture taken was something new and exciting for people. Some believed that it involved great dangers, that your soul could be stolen from you and that you might then die. Others believed that the photographer used his camera in order to view the people in front of it naked. Keïta let people look through the viewfinder themselves and thus calmed their suspicions.

Keïta’s clients loved the photos because they were so sharp and the images so precise, because the light was so sweet, and because they liked the way they looked posing. Everybody wanted to look as good as possible in the photos. Keïta considered it his duty to find the best pose and the most favorable profile for each person. He wanted his clients to look beautiful, in the firm belief that art is beauty.

In the 1950s, Western influences started to elbow out the African tradition. The men started to like Western dress and modern accessories such as wristwatches, ballpoint pens, phones and motorcycles, and loved to be photographed with these accoutrements. The women, by contrast, were more traditional in their outlook, wore colorful, patterned clothes and wide sarongs. They attached great value to jewelry such as earrings and bracelets, but also wanted their hands with their fine fingers to be fully visible. All of this was a sign of affluence and elegance.

Keïta also chose the fitting background. He initially used a tasseled bedspread as a backdrop, then a sheet with arabesques, and finally simply a piece of gray fabric. Sometimes the background was ideal to point up the person’s clothing, he remembers, and sometimes that was pure coincidence.

At the age of 14, Seydou Keïta was given a camera by his uncle and decided that he would be a photographer. He taught himself the tricks of the trade, never went to college, never met foreign photographers, and never saw any of the pictures they took.

Biographical information

1923

born in Bamako (Mali)

1948

opening of his photo studio in Bamako

1994

first international solo exhibition at Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain Paris

2001

died in Paris