A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Seydou Keita: From tin of negatives, mural-sized conflicts
Even by the elevated standard of the New York art world, the rumor was exceptional: a tin of negatives buried in Africa for three decades that, when opened, revealed the work of a photographer who was neither "outsider" nor "indigenous" but spectacularly modern.
And so the bejeweled and bohemian showed up at the Gagosian Gallery the evening of Oct. 18, 1997, wearing Fulani bracelets beneath their Charvet cuffs, blouses referencing Matisse referencing North African fabrics, Xhosa men in dinner jackets.
[Untitled] 1958 fotografia C.A.A.C. The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva
By Michael Rips The New York Times found on IHT TUESDAY, JANUARY 24, 2006
As accustomed as they were to art-world rumors, as familiar as they had become with exaggerations in the photo market, they could not help but be impressed. They saw mural-size black-and-white portraits in which the intricate designs of tribal costumes were set against backdrops of arabesque and floral cloths, the subjects disappearing into dense patterning that suggested Vuillard.
A number of the photographs sold immediately, at prices of up to $16,000, and by the end of the evening, many in the crowd stood childlike in front of their limousines, waiting to catch sight of the photographer whose images they would never forget. He finally appeared, old and regal. The show was uniformly well received.
Margarett Loke, writing in The New York Times, described Seydou Keita as "the man who brought renewed vitality to the art of photographic portraiture." An article in Artforum praised the show, noting that the photographs "were very successful with sophisticated New Yorkers." Not long after the exhibition, I received a phone call from a man I knew as Ibrahim. He had something to show me.
A trader from Mali, Ibrahim would frequently appear at my door with garbage bags of fetish figures that he had brought back from his trips to Africa. The objects that I did not buy he took to others, and at the end of the day, to a mini-storage facility in Chelsea where West African traders do business, play music and entertain their relatives. That day Ibrahim carried no bags. After a few minutes of conversation, he reached into his pocket and extracted a small piece of paper. On the front was the image of a young African woman. The contrast and density of the blacks and whites were minimal, the light modest and the patterns on the costumes barely visible. I turned the photograph over.
"Keita Seydou, Photographe Bamako - Contra en face prison civile Bamako (Sudan Français)." And then a date: "3 Avr 1959." This photograph was nothing like the colossal high-contrast portraits that I had seen at the gallery. But this, Ibrahim explained, was an original. This was what Keita's modest photography studio made. I was later told that there were only a handful of such prints.
The story of this discrepancy - how a pocket-size print, sold for a few dollars in a neighborhood shop in West Africa, became a wall-size photograph that sold for $16,000 in an upscale SoHo gallery - begins in colonial Mali in the 1930s and continues into the future: a new show of Keita's work opens at the Sean Kelly Gallery in Chelsea on Friday. It is a story that includes screaming fights, a lawsuit and charges of theft, forgery and perjury. It survives the photographer himself, who died in 2001. And it touches on the broadest channels of human history, from colonialism to capitalism to revolution to race.
But it also involves a conflict of the most rarefied sort - a philosophical disagreement over the nature of photography and the concept of authenticity. In the 1930s, Seydou Keita, who was then young, uneducated and working in his father's carpentry shop, received a Brownie camera (producing a 6-by-9-centimeter, or 2.3-by-3.5-inch negative) from his uncle. In 1948, Keita set up a commercial studio in downtown Bamako. He was poor, so he made prints, using a 5-by-7-inch view camera, by placing the negative directly against the photographic paper, used his bedsheet as a backdrop and photographed outdoors using available light.
Despite this, his portraits were a success. Keita made photographs of Africans for their own personal use, and he revealed them as they had not been seen before: wearing Western suits and bow ties (his own), sitting on motorbikes or holding radios, or cradling a single flower, a reference to the Symbolists taught in Mali's French schools. For the others, it was a mixture of Western dress and African poses, African dress and Western poses - people defining themselves at the uneven edge of modernity.
Okwui Enwezor, a scholar of photography and curator of a 1996 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that included Keita's work, maintained that in the amount of information he conveys about his middle-class subjects, in the controlled complexity of the portraits and the high level of quality maintained over a great volume, his work is "comparable to the portraiture of Rembrandt."
Following Mali's independence in 1960, he was told to close his studio and work for the government. When he resisted, he once recounted, a general visited his studio. Keita closed up shop, locking his roughly 7,000 negatives in a tin and burying them in his yard. Fifteen years later, near the day when he retired from government, someone broke into his studio and stole his photography equipment. To support himself, he began to fix mopeds, converting his studio into a repair shop. It was there, in 1990, that he met Françoise Huguier, a French photojournalist.
Huguier arranged for a small number of Keita's photographs to be exhibited outside of Africa, where they came to the attention of Jean Pigozzi, heir to the Simca car fortune and one of the world's pre-eminent collectors of contemporary African art. In 1992 Pigozzi sent André Magnin, the curator of Pigozzi's African collection, to Bamako to find the photographer, and Magnin returned with 921 negatives.
He made prints from those negatives, which appeared a couple of years later at an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris and then in 1997 at a solo show at the Scalo Gallery in Zurich, accompanied by a book called "Seydou Keita: An African Photographer." By the time the new prints reached the Gagosian exhibition four months later, some had grown to 48 by 60 inches.
Magnin sold the prints he made to Pigozzi and to other collectors, galleries and museums. Enwezor credits him with bringing Keita to the attention of the world. Keita, however, was not pleased.
Jean-Marc Patras, a well-known agent for African artists and musicians, said that Keita believed that Magnin was making unauthorized prints and signing them. "I absolutely deny these accusations," Magnin said. "Seydou Keita was involved in every decision, was aware of every print made, and signed every print that has his signature."
Pigozzi said recently that without Magnin's and his efforts, Keita "would have been totally forgotten." At the time of the Gagosian show, Keita met with Sean Kelly of the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. But it wasn't until 2001 that the photographer severed his ties with Pigozzi and Magnin. Keita assigned the exclusive rights to sell his photographs to Patras.
The negatives were not returned. Patras went to work on an exhibition of Keita's photographs at the Sean Kelly Gallery. Weeks before the exhibition was scheduled to open in 2001, Keita flew to Paris to confront Magnin, Patras says. But within days of his arrival, Keita was dead at around 80. Two weeks later, Keita's work went up at Sean Kelly.
Just before the opening, Kelly says, Pigozzi, a large man, charged through the gallery. "What do you think you're doing!" Kelly recalls him shouting, albeit it in more pungent language. "I own Seydou Keita." After bringing in a third party to witness the outburst, Kelly threw him out.
In July 2004, the association filed a lawsuit in Paris against Pigozzi and Magnin. That litigation is in the discovery phase. Julie Jacob, the French lawyer who is representing the association, contends that "Magnin and Pigozzi are causing the negatives to be moved between individuals, some of whom are members of Keita's family, so as to avoid having to turn them over to the association." Kelly said he feared that the negatives might be lost altogether.
The controversy presents a difficulty for those who buy and sell prints made from Keita's negatives. Barbara Wilhelm at the Gagosian Gallery said that "because it is difficult to tell which of Keita's prints were signed by Keita or signed by someone else with or without Keita's authorization, each print must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis."
"From the fact that Keita attended the show at Gagosian and voiced no complaints about the prints," she said, she is "satisfied that the signatures on the prints that were exhibited that evening were legitimate."
Walter Keller, who organized the 1997 show in Switzerland, recommends that "signatures on Keita's prints should be checked against those signatures that are known to be authentic." At the coming exhibition, the largest photographs (60 by 48 inches) will be offered in limited editions of three for $18,000 to $22,000, not much above the price at Gagosian eight years ago.
Over the same period, some other celebrated photographers' work has quadrupled in price. But for all the controversy that now surrounds Keita, Kelly seems surprised that there hasn't been more. "If you take this story and substitute the name of Bresson for Keita, the world would be in an uproar," he said, referring to Henri Cartier-Bresson. "So far few have paid attention." A
s a photograph (or any other work of art) is separated in time from the cultural context in which it originated, the work becomes open to new meanings. This idea, perhaps first articulated in Walter Benjamin's landmark 1931 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," has been embraced by many curators in recent years, leading them away from what Brian Wallis, the director of exhibitions and chief curator of the International Center of Photography, refers to as the "fetish for the vintage." Instead, curators are more open to the new meanings that may emerge from manipulating the originals. In the case of Keita, the original photographs were taken at a significant moment in West African history, amid a great migration from rural to urban areas.
His customers, said Enwezor, were part of that shift: newly arrived in the city, they would mail photographs to relatives who were still in the countryside. The prints were a type of private correspondence. As the formal elements of the photograph - its dimensions, its contrasts and densities - are manipulated, this history of the image, as contained within the photograph, begins to evaporate. There is, though, another argument, based in the technology of photography, that undermines the concept of photographic authenticity. Charles Griffin, who prints the photographs of Cindy Sherman and Hiroshi Sugimoto, observes that the resolution of photographic negatives is far greater than that of the prints made from them. The negatives, you might say, contain a far greater amount of information than can be shown, placing those who make prints in the position of having to select and suppress the information that will ultimately appear.
And the printer's responsibility in this regard, Griffin added, has been heightened by the decision of paper companies to reduce the silver content in, and therefore the sensitivity of, photographic papers. As a result, artists, museums and galleries treat printers in the same way that writers treat good editors, trusting them to add and subtract material from a manuscript to achieve the best result. It was to Griffin that Kelly turned when he took over the representation of Keita. Because of the respect that the dealer and the association have for Griffin's work, they have given him great license over the way in which Keita's photographs are printed. Griffin said that when he attended the 1997 exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, he was immediately disturbed by a number of factors, especially the extent of the contrast between the blacks and the whites.
When he was asked later to make prints from Keita's negatives, he made a number of important changes, including the decision to "give more emphasis to the ground between the blacks and whites." He has yet to see a vintage photograph of Keita's. Griffin's observation about the influence of collectors contains a paradox: however much scholars talk about alternative modes of interpretation, the dominant force in the current market is one that makes many re-interpretations look a great deal like the cover of Cosmopolitan, a result that is probably not what Walter Benjamin had in mind. In the end, the debate over how to make prints from Keita's negatives may soon be academic. As a result of the litigation to recover the 921 negatives from Magnin and Pigozzi, the association has little money left to preserve those negatives that are in its possession - negatives which, according to Griffin, are quickly deteriorating.
In the end, the controversial prints may be all that is left of Seydou Keita. And at that point, the postmodern will have become the authentic.
Article written by Michael Rips is the author of two books, "The Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery," and "Pasquale's Nose: Idle Days in an Italian Town."
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