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Arts: Africa is where we live

Seydou Keita portrays his fellow Africans as real people. Not as anthropological curiosities.
I first saw the work of the Malian photographer Seydou Keita five years ago in the prestigious Fondation Cartier in Paris. I remember feeling slightly humbled by his lush and generous black-and-white portraits that lent a rare air of dignity to their African subjects. I remember also wondering why I had never come across any of these remarkable pictures before, none of which had been taken later than 1962.

At the time, I did not realise that Seydou Keita was a latecomer to the world stage. Until the French art historian Andre Magnin tracked him down in 1991 with the help of three anonymous prints he had seen in an exhibition in New York, Keita was unknown outside West Africa. And even there he had almost sunk into obscurity. His studio where he produced the body of work for which he is now so justly celebrated had, at the prompting of the then socialist government, closed its doors in 1963 when he was appointed official photographer of the new Malian state.

But in the 15 years prior to his conscription, he was constantly in demand. When Magnin first went to meet Keita at his home in Bamako, Mali's creaking capital city, he found the septuagenarian photographer sitting on an archive of some 30,000 negatives from his studio days. Since Keita, working with a 13x18cm plate camera, only took a single shot of most of his subjects, this vast collection is a testament to the phenomenal success he enjoyed during that period.

Earlier this year, with the Barbican's current show Africa by Africa approaching, I decided it was my turn to visit him. His pictures were undoubtedly going to be the exhibition's centrepiece, and I wanted to meet the person behind the work. More precisely, I wanted to find out just how it was he managed to produce such a consistently telling series of images.

It was Ramadan when I turned up at the labyrinthine mud-walled compound where Seydou Keita lives with his extended family. I was greeted by an unaffected and amiable old man who, although evidently suffering from his month long diurnal fast, still spent the best part of two hot January afternoons telling me about his life as a portrait photographer.

By the early Fifties, his reputation had begun to spread right across West Africa. Queues would often form outside his door and he soon developed a system to cope with the volume of business. When you arrived at his studio, you either chose to wear your own clothes or decided on one of a variety of outfits that he provided. Tacked to the wall were pictures of previous clients in a whole range of poses. You pointed to the one you liked best and Keita would duplicate it. The whole process could take as little as 10 minutes.

The portraits that emerged were a sort of collaboration between the sitter's fantasy and the photographer's prowess, and they remain a lasting document of Bamako life in the decade-and-a-half before independence. But rather than being a straightforward chronicle of any objective reality, they are, more accurately, a record of a reflective reality. For these photographs show us the way people wish to see themselves, in front of the mirror and in front of the lens. In one picture, a woman has brought her sewing machine with her. In another, a man stands proudly next to his new bicycle.

It is no coincidence that the majority of Keita's clients were young people. In Fifties Africa, being photographed was itself indicative of a modern sensibility. With independence looming, an emerging generation was looking for new post-colonial role models. The apparent desire of many of them to have their pictures taken wearing the latest Western fashions or surrounded by props such as the watches, radios, telephones and scooters that Keita himself provided, reinforces the impression that during this transitional period in their continent's history, young Africans put their faith in the trappings of a modernity that appeared to be the most promising option for advancing life after European rule.

The candour of these portraits, which expose the aspirations and beliefs of the people who posed in them, is what, when allied to Keita's unerring eye for form and pattern, lends the photographs such power. This knack for combining the ingenuous with the aesthetic arose from the singular relationship that existed between Keita and his customers which, as he explained it, always saw him doing his utmost to realise their ambitions by "finding the most perfect, flattering poses".

In another context, say Annie Liebowitz's ego-caressing portraits of celebrities, such an approach sheds little light on the inner world of her subjects. But the simple and frank decorative strategies Keita employed during what was such a critical moment in his country's history produced the contrary result.

It cannot have escaped the attention of the organisers of Africa by Africa that the exhibition showing alongside it, Picasso and Photography: The Dark Mirror, contains several pictures of Africans taken by Europeans that stand in sharp opposition to the work of the African photographers on the Barbican's lower level. Take the two postcards by the turn of the century French photographer Edmond Fortier. In each, a nearly naked Senegalese girl self-consciously faces the camera. "Girls from the None tribe wear only a vestige of clothing" reads the caption stamped on one of the cards. While such an apparently objective approach might be superficially informative, on closer inspection this attempt to classify the native populace tells us more about Western prejudices (in this case "All savages are immodest") than it does about the people in front of the lens.

What is manifestly lacking in these and many other examples of colonial and even the neo-colonial photography of our age, is any genuine relationship between the photographer and his subject. Instead, the camera is a pseudo- scientific tool which, in seeking to objectify people, in seeing them as they never see themselves, neglects its fundamental duty - that of allowing any trace of their own subjective reality to emerge.

By contrast, each of Keita's pictures is, in his own words, a work of "love". In none of the portraits on show at the Barbican is there the merest hint of the non-consensual, that hallmark of so much of the intrusive photography that Africa has had to suffer. Rather his work exhibits an opposing tendency, one which I believe is the consequence of an instinctive sympathy between photographer and sitter, itself the result of a shared historical experience which meant that both parties tacitly understood what had to be expressed, namely the assertion of a personal truth that contained within it the germs of a post-colonial political consciousness.

After my second and final meeting with Seydou Keita, I left Bamako for Djenne, a town my guidebook described as "the most satisfying" in the Sahel. It was a tourist trap. At lunch one day I sat next to a German photographer who spotted a postcard for sale. "This is one of mine," he told his companions triumphantly. Once they had left, I went to inspect it. It was a typical postcard with two Tuareg tribesmen walking, backs to the camera, into the desert. His choice of words seemed fitting. Because approached from behind, most probably unaware that they had even been photographed, the men in the picture had fallen captive to the photographer's lens. From a commercial, aesthetic, and who knows, even spiritual point of view, he now possessed that moment of their lives. And they had not been involved in the process at all.

Africa by Africa: Barbican until 28 March; pounds 6, pounds 4 conc. Open Mon, Thur - Sat 10am - 6.45pm; Tue 10am - 5.45pm; Wed 10am - 7.45pm; Sun & Bank Holidays 12pm - 6.45pm. Tel 0171-382 7105