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Magical Africa

SEYDOU KEITA. Edited by Andre Magnin . Scalo: 286 pp., $49.95

March 29, 1998|BASIL DAVIDSON | Basil Davidson is the author of more than 20 books on Africa and the slave trade, including, most recently, "The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State."

Every now and then there comes out of Africa a book that tells about something really new. Not very often, as we know, because books about Africa seem all too easily to sink into a rut of repeating what we have known already. But here is one that leaps out of that dismal fate and, again remarkably, does this not in words but in photographs. Again remarkably, these are not photographs of astonishing animals and weird scenarios but of everyday people in their Sunday best and strongly determined to look like it. For the maker of these photographs, splendidly reproduced here and more than 200 in number, is a professional photographer whose portraits are of men and women in moments of personal or family celebration. Nothing could be less exciting or attractive? Yet Seydou Keita's work remains memorable.

Probably it is only in America that Keita's achievement could be received with the admiration it deserves. This may sound ungenerous in the context of this album, for we owe its notable assembly of photographs largely to Andre Magnin, a curator of the Paris Collection of Contemporary African Art. Yet Seydou's principles and practice take you back to the unsurpassed skills and vision of Paul Strand and his circle of American photographers who first placed their work on a level needing no apologies for claims to artistic greatness. That is high praise for a practically unknown African artist. But it seems to me in no way excessive, and it can be no surprise that Keita's work should have been exhibited at the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian. These portraits are carefully posed, just as I well recall Strand's from my years of working with him, but the camera, an unwieldy box-like affair (as it was in Keita's case and often in Strand's), never comes between you and the people photographed. It is a kind of magic and rare.

If Keita is entirely unexpected in his work and its distinction, so is the rest of the story from which he has emerged. To begin with, the now sorely impoverished capital of Bamako in the republic of Mali is not at all the kind of place that could be expected to produce him. Although a fairly ancient trading city on the banks of the immense river Niger, where it flows out of remote savannas and embarks on its long journey to the ocean, Bamako has nothing that can offer fame and beauty: nothing to compare with the haunting attraction of the much older city of Jenne with its crumbling walls and tales of long ago or the crowding river traffic of Mopti with its 50-foot river boats run by Bozo mariners who have long equipped their craft with powerful outboard engines and yet still retain the call and rumor of old Mali of the Middle Ages.

Yet Bamako, even with its somehow-housed population pushing now to the million mark and long submerged in urban squalor, is nonetheless a place to visit for those who want to experience Africa "beyond the tourist veil." I first went there as long ago as 1952 to meet the leaders of a then-rising movement of West African anticolonial nationalism, a quest regarded by colonial authorities (French, in this case) as a wickedly subversive thing to want to do. But luck favored me, and I had time before being hustled out of the territory to find the men I went to see, notably the future republican president, Mamadou Konate. With more time I could surely have met Seydou the Photographer, for we read in his book that he had just opened a studio that same year--1952--on a piece of land in Bamako given him by his father. The place he chose for his studio was "just beside the main prison" and thus exactly where you would have expected to find it in colonial times, prisons then being leading venues of popular if involuntary resort.

Besides, Keita had other reasons for this choice of residence. It was a place, he tells us, "where no one wanted to live because of its disadvantage of housing spirits that threw stones in the night. Even today, if you sleep in that house and turn off the light, a great gleaming white horse might appear: You can often hear him galloping by or see him shining in the night." The trick for dealing with this boisterous phantom was to keep the light on, and then "you never had problems." All of which helps to confirm that Keita was and remains a true son of ancestral Mali who, as Youssef Tata Cisse explains in a useful sketch in this book about offbeat Mali, "knows that one should always respect the improbable, if people believe in it."

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