Seydou Keïta’s portrait photography is a testimonial to a city on the brink of greatness.
The portraits show people who came to Mali’s capital city of Bamako in search of a better life. They had their photographs taken by Keïta so that they could show their relatives in the country that they had gone up in the world, or simply that they were well. Keïta had an ever increasing collection of props, such as mopeds, jewellery and clothing, and took skilful portraits of his customers in front of a contrasting background. He took pictures of happy couples, of large families and of groups of women in western clothing, sitting on a Vespa or posing in their Sunday best. The resulting photographs were then printed in a small format and sent to the customer’s family. Keïta quickly became a successful and respected portrait photographer. It was not until the beginning of the 1990s, when Keïta had long been in retirement, that some of his pictures found their way into the hands of a gallerist. Within a short period of time, they became highly valued on the international market, sought after for their high quality – particularly in the context of their distance from any sort of academic discourse – their carefully composed composition and, of course, the stories that they told. Keïta’s portraits are now no longer printed out in the form of photo cards but as high-quality glossy prints, which are hung in western galleries and sell for high prices.