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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Screen, paper and face



We are sitting in the window of a chain café on the edge of the Strand. We are drinking small cups of coffee with Italian names which have just been prepared using coffee beans grown somewhere in South America. We have been looking at photographs taken fifty years ago in West Africa of people running, dancing, jumping, playing. A painter told me that good paintings lift you, they give you something, you walk away feeling like you're richer. She's not keen on photography, yet I feel that this notion of being rich in spirit even when your pockets are empty can be applied to all works of human creativity. Certainly, I feel wonderful after looking at all those photographs of anonymous people in a far-away place and a far-away time. They are here and I am there.

Back to the present, and suddenly we hear a burst of shouting and calling. A group of people are passing by waving placards, and I remember the notice that I'd seen tied to a traffic light at a pedestrian crossing advertising a march to show support immigrant workers. I'd also seen it advertised online, and suddenly here it is in front of me. I am at leisure, sitting here in the middle of the day philosophising, because my four grandparents migrated to London to study, to work, to seek refuge from persecution. They found jobs, then each other; they renounced their former citizenships to settle and stay; they raised children. They paid taxes. They never claimed social benefits. Why would they?

There is a problem in this country called race, and people who do not have peach skin, deep eye sockets, straight hair and thin lips are ceaselessly made to feel unwelcome. I can't be proud of a country whose people constantly question my birthplace. It is always assumed that I, and others who resemble me, come from somewhere else. The location is abstract, and foreign, and far away. When migrants are demonised by the media and by politicians, as they currently are, I wonder what is the desired alternative. Nationalism in England has a nasty undercurrent of racism and fascism. Currently, new migrants and religious minorities are scapegoated for the nation's problems; whilst descendants of old migrants are constantly made to feel unwelcome, like we're not part of the country. I guess that I don't always want to be British, but I am, and there's no where else for me to go. This is the home that I come from, and I have no choice but to stay.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House


We finally made it to the Malick Sidibé exhibition at Somerset House; it was absolutely wonderful, in so many ways.  It closes on the 26th February, so I am typing like the wind in order that any readers might have time to catch it in the next 5 days!


Malick Sidibé was a Malian photographer, who took iconic portrait photographs in Mali following independence  from French colonialisation in 1960. I had previously seen his photographs hung in group exhibitions, and this is the first solo show in the UK. The exhibition was divided into three sections according to their topics and style, and framed photographs were hung in three beautiful high-ceilinged rooms in Somerset House. Nightlife in the capital Bamako depicted snappily-dressed groups of men and women dancing the twist and showing off their record collections. Daytime by the river Niger showed groups of teenagers posing, playing, swimming. The last room displayed a selection of studio portraits, some of which were certainly more posed than the location photography, but all were equally energetic. Sidibé's subjects are notable for their charismatic style, whether clothed in a three-piece checked suit with polished loafers and pork-pie hat, or standing topless wearing a sarong or old jeans. His photography is utterly fresh; you can almost hear the peals of laughter, shouts or cries ringing out. The atmosphere of the exhibition was kept equally upbeat with a varied soundtrack designed by DJ Rita Ray, which I felt was really successful.

All photographs were black-and-white, and were heavily textured from darkroom processing. The crinkly photographic paper was hung loose in white frames, which really gave an additional layer of tactility to the show. We are in the age of images which exist only onscreen, and I can honestly say that the curatorial choice to emphasise the physicality of photographs made it a very special show. I look forward to more like it in the future, and really encourage you to go before it closes!

Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali. Somerset House, till 26 February. 
Free entry!
Click here for more information.