Malick Sidibe… Fact, distortion about ‘father of African photography’
For inadequate documentation of African photography, the death of legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, raises the challenge of who belongs where among the continent’s departed and living professionals of the lens art.
Sidibie b.1935 and died on April 4, 2016 has been regarded in some sections of foreign media, particularly in Europe as ‘father of African photography.’ The late photographer’s work is widely revered as being among the leading art of the lens in Africa.
However, the appropriateness of conferring a ‘father of African photography’ on Sidibe causes head scratching. And it got louder when France’s Culture Minister, Audrey Azoulay re-echoed same after Sidibe’s death, saying “He was often called the father of African photography.”
The label appears to be gaining wider acceptance by the day, particularly since the death of the photographer over a week ago. How did the author(s) arrive at such an error of ‘crowning’? Two issues come into focus in questioning the fatherly cown: there were successful pioneer African photographers ahead of Sidibe’s generation. And his work is not the only internationally known among his generation of photographers.
It is of note that among Sidibe’s generation of photographers such as J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014) and Peter Obe (1932-2013), the Malian legend enjoyed a wider visibility above the Nigerians. Given the fact that he was like a phenomenon and lone ranger within the Malian space, it was natural that Sidibe’s work got so much attention outside his locality, particularly in France.
Perhaps, his well-celebrated status above his contemporaries swayed the ‘father’ accolade to his side. Even at death, it was reported that Mali took him as ‘national treasure.’ Few days after his death, a report had it that ‘hundreds of Malians gathered at a football pitch in Daoudabougou, near Bamako for his burial.’
In 2007, he was honoured at Venice Biennale with Lifetime Achievement award. He was also honored with a Hasselblad Award, a lifetime achievement award from the International Center of Photography and a World Press Photo Prize.
However, there are facts of history that make Sidibe’s ‘father of African photography’ toga sounds like an error generated from the standpoint of emotion rather than reality. In 2012, a visiting American art historian, Lisa Aronson, who was at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, revealed how history blurred a 19th-century photographer, Jonathan Adagogo Green (1873 – 1905) who is of Ijaw, Nigeria’s Niger Delta Origin. From the presentation of Aronson, which exposed the quality of Adagogo’s work, certain facts explains that the photographer’s career was blurred from art history.
Aronson an Associate Prof of Art History at Skidmore College, U.S., teaches and writes mainly about African art and visual culture.
If historians agreed that J.A Green, practised at a time when photography was not exactly recognised as an art the way it turned out to be a century later, history cannot place the works of another Nigerian, Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911-1994) in the same fog. As a prominent photographer of his time, Chief Alonge focused the Benin Royal family among other subjects.
Apart from Chief Alonge, there seemed to have existed other successful African photographers in the generations past. For example, when The Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C showed the works of Chief Alonge two years ago during Nigeria’s centenary, the museum noted that photography did not take much long to arrive in Africa shortly after its invention in 1839.
In its accounts of the lens profession, Smithsonian added that “in the late 19th to early 20th century, many West Africans took up the profession of photography.” In fact, the records showed that “some were highly successful and profited from this new venture.” Listed among such very successful African photographers of that era was Chief Alonge.
Apart from the tragedy of inadequate documentation, which perhaps blurred achievements of early African photographers before Sidibe, the period of the Malian’s practice is clearly an advantage in visibility. But the number and texture of laurels Sidibe has won – above others who practised before him and among his contemporaries should not be the reason to crown him as ‘father of African photography.’ If such criteria should be considered in other professions, for example, Lionel Messi should have been labeled as the ‘best’ or ‘father’ of football. But the Brazilian legend, Pelestill remains the ‘best Footballer of all time, despite not collecting half of Messi’s medals.
If there was, or is, any African photographer whose work – style or technique – has brought more visible innovations to the lens art in Africa, Ojeikere fits such identity. The sculptural hairstyle of women captured by Ojeikere, over several decades remain great reference point in photography.
Being one of the most exhibited African photographers, Ojeikere has been documented in J. D. Okhai Ojeikere: Photographs, a book on African hairstyles and culture authored by a French curator, Andre Magrin.
With the rich background of photography as an art in Africa, further research by scholars would most likely put records in proper perspective.
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