When photography arrived in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century, Africans not only took up the art as a profession, they also began to frequent local studios to have their portraits taken. No African studio photographer achieved greater fame among art collectors in Europe and the United States than the Malian Seydou Keïta. From 1948 to 1964 he operated a studio in Bamako-Koura, a new and lively part of the town inhabited by people employed in the colonial economy and the educated African elite. Keïta's pictures capture the aspirations and fantasies of his sitters, who in collaboration with him created images demonstrating their cosmopolitan outlook. Clothing and accoutrements ranging from gloves and wristwatches to hats, at times borrowed from the photographer, and props such as bicycles, sewing machines, and even motorcycles signaled the sitters' modern ways of life.
This young woman poses with a radio that was part of Keïta's studio equipment and appears in many of his portraits taken in the mid-1950s. Her man's watch, too, belonged to the photographer. The dress of colorfully printed cloth produced in European textile mills for the African market, an elegantly draped head tie, and fine silver jewelry project her elegance and sophistication. She leans slightly forward and through her pose seems to appropriate the radio, this important means of connecting her to the world, to what happened in the Bamako, the French colonies, and Europe.
In its original form, this photograph, which demonstrates Keïta's superb eye and technical skills, was no larger than a postcard and would have been part of the young woman's photographic album or a present to her friends. Printed from an original negative by the atelier of Pierre Salaün in France to museum standards and in a much larger size, this image brings into focus the way in which Africans utilized new media and techniques and embraced modernity.
Christraud M. Geary
From Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present (Detroit, 2009)