In the first decades of the twentieth century, while the French Cubists were discovering African sculpture, the tools of another art, photography, were travelling in the opposite direction, to the interior of West Africa, to the places where the masks and ritual objects that captivated Picasso and Braque had their origin. Masks were exported; film imported. One of the main trade routes was that linking the coast of Senegal to the mud-brick city of Bamako, a market town of the Malian empire that had become the capital of French West Africa.
Here, where the railway meets the Niger river, sometime after the First World War, a Frenchman named Jules Garnier established a pharmacy and photographic supply shop. His son, Pierre, set up there as a working photographer. Under Pierre’s tutelage, a young Mande carpenter named Seydou Keïta became the first African photographer in the Sahelian region. Seydou Keïta—who still lives in Bamako 1 ―was given his original camera, a German-made Kodak Brownie, by his uncle in 1935. In his heyday as a studio photographer, in the 1950s and 1960s, when Bamako was a colonial boom town, he was using a six-inch-by-nine-inch plate camera and glass negatives supplied by the Garnier pharmacy.
If you had lived in Bamako at that time, or were passing through—if you were a Mande merchant or a Fulani cattle trader, or the wife of a Wolof marabout, or an employee of the railway company—there is a fair chance you would, at some stage, have paid a visit to Seydou’s studio, which was located close to the zoo, and, as the rubber stamp on the back of his prints announced, “en face de la prison civil”. Saturday night was the busiest time of the week. The studio was a blaze of light. According to Seydou, in an interview included in this collection of his pictures, the light kept the animal spirits that haunted the nearby stream at a safe distance.
On the matter of light, it may be noted, Seydou’s uncle—the one who started him off in the photography business—inclines to a different view. According to him it is these animal spirits—Ninkin-Nankin, the serpent spirit of pre-colonial Bamako, and the glowing horse-spirit Djine So—rather than the city’s electrical generator that are the ultimate source of light, for photography and for everything else.