When Antwerp-based art dealer Roger Szmulewicz began working with Malick Sidibé two decades ago, the Malian photographer was virtually unknown. "When I started nobody wanted it – now they are very famous artists, but they weren't in the beginning. There were two problems: it was photography and it was African." Sidibé went on to be the first photographer, and the first African, to receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2007.
Sidibé was well known and very much admired in Bamako, where he photographed beach parties and portraits of the local youth at his small studio during the halcyon days of post-independence in the 1960s and 1970s, as the Malian capital transitioned to becoming a cosmopolitan city – a pulsating mix of American, European and African fashion, style and music. "It is difficult to put in words, because if it were words, he would have been a writer – it's to do with his eyes, on this moment." Szmulewicz tells me over the phone. His images are not only an important document of a time in Malian history, but a contribution to the shape of photography in the 20th century. "It's all about the atmosphere. He knew how to light and how to print of course, but that was not the thing – he could build an image with movement, it was very dynamic."
The spontaneous energy of Sidibé’s dance photographs reflects the photographer’s approach – he was a part of the scene, and his subjects felt at ease with him. "You can really see his personality through the pictures - you cannot photograph something that you aren't. You create what you are."
When Sidibé sadly passed away in April of this year, after a long battle with illness, Szmulewicz decided to organise a commemorative exhibition, but in the celebratory tone appropriate for such a lively and loved figure. It’s Too Funky In Here! is dedicated to Sidibé’s photographs of dancers in Mali, opening at Fifty One Too gallery, Antwerp later this week. “I think this is the way he has to be remembered – and that's why I wanted to have this show about the dance images.”
The exhibition includes 20 of Sidibé’s photographs, including some of his most iconic dance works – such as Dance Twist, Christmas Eve and The Merengue Dancer – but it will also present lesser-known photographs, that are, according to Szmulewicz, equally as strong. "When you see the images you hear the music."
It's Too Funky In Here! runs at Fifty One Too gallery in Antwerp from September 8, 2016 – November 5, 2016.