|Malick Sidibé, Back View, 1964.|
When people walk into a photo studio wearing their best finery, they demand control over how they are perceived, and they are aided by various combinations of props (wall prints, radios, bicycles, or even a single flower) and camera tricks (which might make a subject appear as his own twin, or seemingly put him in the presence of angels and ghosts). I was particularly intrigued by the studio portraits of the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, in which we see most of his subjects from the back. Many of the photographs show no face at all, just a man’s hat or a woman’s elaborate hairstyle. In others we get a fleeting glance of a face, tilted slightly over the shoulder, as in the image of a young man with his jacket tucked under his elbow as he approaches the white backdrop.
Portraiture, argues the Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor, is “a game of theater and masquerade, premised on the artifice of self-construction. The figure in the image, more than being depicted and displayed, insists on being seen, to be looked at, and desired.”
This yearning to be desired is most identifiable in the portraits that appear to have been meant for private use, such as many by the celebrated Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta. The desire not to be desired is here, too. In what looks like an engagement portrait gone wrong, a young woman seems more willing to hug Keïta’s radio than the young man who is trying to grasp her in his arms. Her defiant glare makes us feel like voyeurs.
To read Miss Danticat’s essay in its entirety, pick up a copy of the December 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine on newsstands now.