Nuit de Noel (Happy Club), by Malick Sidibé

malick sidibe

During Malick Sidibé’s formative years, Mali achieved independence from French colonial rule after Senegal withdrew from the Mali Federation in August 1960. This newfound national freedom welcomed a youthful and electric era of parties, nightclubs, and most importantly, music.

As Mali’s capital, Bamako, developed into a lively, cosmopolitan centre, Sidibé followed suit by engrossing himself in its urban life, actively participating in its rapidly forming, energetic social circles. The photographer built up an expansive view of his celebrating country, capturing studio portraits, weddings, baptisms, picnics, as well as the city’s architecture and infrastructure. Perhaps the most celebrated of his subjects are the images of the numerous parties he attended. His process was a breathless, non-stop, tireless exploration of Mali’s nightlife, ceasing to pause for rest for fear of missing a single moment. Sidibé would visit parties from midnight to 6am, accepting every invitation he received. He would capture 36 shots at each event before promptly moving to the next location, often returning to the busiest, most energetic parties. After the parties had slowly fizzled out, Sidibé would spend the early hours of the morning developing and printing hundreds of photographs. By the next morning, the proofs were pinned up outside his studio, attracting crowds of party-goers eagerly identifying images of themselves in the midst of their festivities. Sidibé’s photographs acted as social currency, allowing people to boast of their romantic conquests and popularity. More so, these parties allowed Malian youth to achieve a level of physical proximity that was usually considered taboo. Sidibé explains that he was invited to record moments of blissful closeness, times when ‘a young man could dance with a young woman close up’, without disapproval.

Nuit de Noel (Happy Club) slots comfortably within Sidibé’s production during the 1960s. A pair are shown in the midst of a joyful expression of freedom. Their foreheads inch close to one another, glistening with perspiration. Both man and woman smile towards their feet, focussing on their choreographed footwork. One is barefoot, long having since abandoned her uncomfortable shoes in exchange for a coating of dust and pebbles. The couple are dressed finely, their crisp attire gleaming against the shadowy background. They are carefree, vivacious, and liberated; embracing their newly found national independence. Foremost, music is deeply ingrained within Sidibé’s photographs. Certainly, many of his images documenting parties sing, percuss, and dance, emitting a melody of West African exhilaration. Indeed, accompanying Sidibé’s ‘The Eye of Modern Mali’ exhibition at Somerset House in 2017 was a carefully curated gallery soundtrack of British and American rock ‘n’ roll and Malian roots music. Sidibé expresses that during the 60s “I loved the music and the atmosphere, but above all I loved the dancers. The moments when young people dance and play as though the stars belong to them – that’s what I loved the most.” Ultimately, Sidibé’s spontaneous images afford Malians the opportunity to represent themselves as successful, modern, and independent; granting them the agency that did not previously exist under colonial French rule.

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