In the age of individualism, the order of today for artists is to first and foremost develop a definitive personal style. Meanwhile art history continues its quest grouping associates and seeking similarities in order to understand a time or a place through the statements and styles of the artists who lived in them. Not often can art escape its context as a reflection of- or a response to the politics, economics or social constructs of the day. Hamidou Maiga is a photographer who, relative to his long career, has recently been discovered by the art world. Through this ‘discovery’ he has naturally been grouped with his contemporary and occasional collaborator, the late Malick Sidib√©, and their predecessor Seydou Ke√Øta as the portrait photographers of mid-century Mali.
On another continent altogether, his photographs are currently on display at MATE¬†in Peru. The museum and centre was established by celebrated fashion photographer Mario Testino with the aim of creating a cultural exchange between Peruvian artists and the world, and international contemporary art and audiences in Lima. The show is titled¬†The Route of the N√≠ger: From Mopti to Tombuct√∫. In 1958 Maiga established¬†his first studio in the village of N’Gouma in the Mopti region. Though there’s a consistent formality to be found in his images, many were shot outdoors in a makeshift studio as he spent two years travelling the route of the River Niger taking people’s portraits along the way. In 1960, the year of Mali’s independence from France, he set up in Timbuktu. Maiga is known as one of the first people to bring a camera to the Niger region and for many of his subjects it would have been the first time they were ever photographed.
History is told from the perspective of those who have the means to document and¬†disseminate it. In order to change the voice narrating the stories of African people, there has been a movement in recent years, online especially, for African stories and images to be told and made by Africans. The value that photographers like Sidib√© and Maiga operating in their home countries 50 years ago bring to art history (and history in general) is immeasurable. These portraits made of paying customers are the antithesis of the ethnographic portraiture of African people made by European photographers that we’ve come to know too well.
Though Maiga’s life’s work was intended as a commercial enterprise – he continues to live and work in Bamako today – through this everyday documentation, he captured Mali’s journey through independence and the socio-economic effect this had on his subjects, the fashion they chose to wear and how they chose to present themselves to his camera.