The reader with the long memory may recall my remarks on the Archive of Malian Photography. I expressed some disappointment with it, and I continue to be disappointed. It strikes me as, at the very best, a cultural artifact of very little depth.
Turns out there's more going on here!
One of the photographers in the archive is actually a well known guy, a sort of recently discovered (20 years ago or so) wunderkind of Africa. Also, somewhat more recently deceased. As usual, the story is that he labored in obscurity until white guy discovered his vast archive of important work, but the reality is that he was at any rate well known in Mali, and quite possibly known in Europe. It was by the efforts, perhaps, of the white marketing guy, that his previously known work become Important. I don't know where this guy's true story fits, but probably somewhere between those two stories.
So, the guy is Malick Sidibé, and there was a retrospective held in France recently, reviewed in the Tedious Grey Lady. These are much more visually interesting pictures and, perhaps, a somewhat deeper artifact than the Archive cited above has.
The white guy who discovered Sidibé is André Magnin, an independent curator who was actually looking for someone else in Mali. Magnin, to some extent or another, did or does represent the Contemporary African Art Center (CAAC), a project funded by Jean Pigozzi, who is another white guy who happens to have a hell of a lot of money. What exactly the relationships between Magnin, CAAC, and Pigozzi are is a little murky, probably deliberately. Things like CAAC are usually in part a tax dodge anyways.
Ok, so, digging further we find that CAAC/Magnin hold a bunch of Sidibé's negatives, that MSU (where the Archive above lives) appears to be somewhat pissy about this, not least because Magnin clearly has the good ones and the Archive has the shitty ones. If you poke around the Archive a bit, you find some material about how they are very careful that negatives never leave Mali, always remain in the hands of the right people etc, because there's been a lot of LOOTING and STUFF which they're vague about. Another MSU professor mentioned on twitter, without sources, that Magnin has attempted (or is now attempting) to buy the copyrights from Sidibé's family.
In case you were wondering, the princpals at the Archive in the USA are both white. The guy who accused Magnin of trying to buy copyrights? Yup. White guy.
Me? Yes, also a white guy. It's like some kinda fuckin' pattern here.
So, what we have here is a set of pictures, which Magnin essentially made valuable through the marketing efforts. There is now money and prestige on the line, and a Whole Bunch of White People are set to squabble over who gets it.
What seems to have occurred is that Sidibé took a bunch of photos of Malians in nightclubs and at parties in the 1950s and 1960s. They're pretty good pictures, fun to look at, interesting because of context. Had they been shot in Harlem they would have been a minor curiosity. Since they were shot in Africa, they're much more interesting to Euros and Americans. People like me. Me, in particular. They do tell us something that we did not know, but which many people in Africa (not least the Malians) knew then: namely that African youth look and act a lot like Euro and American youth given the chance.
There is a distressing subtext here, about which we can do nothing. It is possible to read these pictures thus: Look at the Africans, why, they're almost like us, what a surprise! Well, they were, until of course the wheels fell off and they re-descended back into their natural state of savagery and poverty, because, Africa.
There is, however, no doubt that Magnin was instrumental in creating the value in these pictures. Sidibé took them, certainly. I will speculate that across Africa over the last 75 years, many photographers have built many such archives. It's just the stuff that was going on, that Sidibé could shoot for money. Africa, obviously, has had lots of photographers and I dare say many of them made some money taking pictures along the way. No Magnin, no value. Obviously, no Sidibé, no value either. Photographs in general, and these photographs perhaps a little more, are valuable because of what they depict (Sidibé) combined with how and where and to whom they are presented (Magnin).
Several questions are raised here.
The first is who is deserving of reward here. These pictures are not even very interesting in Africa, any more than wheat is particularly valuable in Saskatchewan. Are Magnin and CAAC nonetheless simple white exploiters who should justly be cut out of the loop? Should the MSU Archive be placed into the loop, and if so, on what grounds? They're just a bunch of white exploiters with different protocols, really. If Magnin hadn't "discovered" Sidibé they'd be furiously protecting some masks or something from exploiters instead. The Archive of Malian Photography appears to be a grant-funded land grab. They would like to acquire the Sidibé archive in toto and they are hoping to discover more of the same. Surely they intend to respect the photographers, and so forth, but they would also like to make some substantial career hay here as well.
The second is an older and larger question. Are artifacts of a culture better left more or less in situ or carried off to carefully managed archives? The current "correct" answer is that, obviously, the you should send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece. This is the MSU Archive's program, they're restoring negatives in-country, scanning them, carefully restricting access to high resolution scans, and returning the negatives to the copyright holders. Or, well, to someone in country. Someone who seems to be a good choice to represent the copyright holders. Recall that as far as I can tell, these negatives are completely uninteresting even to us, I cannot imagine they're much above the level of trash in-country. A humongous pile of bog standard studio mugshots of people from 65 years ago? Huh? Why would anyone even keep that?
Magnin's program was to bring the negatives to Europe, he acquired the ones that were, once imported, valuable. Did he compensate Sidibé appropriately? Is he compensating the heirs who now hold the relevant copyrights approprately? Unknown, and let's be honest, probably quite secret.
Not to throw shade at the Africans, but these are objects that have very little value in situ. Are these negatives going to be around in 50 years? If we
assume that they even ought to be around 50 years hence, it is not obvious to me that Sidibé's family will ensure that's the case. This is something that is nearly impossible to determine without going to Mali. We can be assured that the MSU Archive will certainly assert for us that they're doing the right thing. Their assurance plus a couple bucks will get you a cup of coffee.
The whole thing is a fascinating study of, well, of something. It is certainly a clusterfuck, it is certainly murky, and it has a lot to tell us about how Art gets its value. It makes the Vivian Maier situation, which it resembles in several ways, look positively boring!
I admit I take a certain delight in imagining the MSU Archive's story. Most likely they came in to possession of these pieces of knowledge: That Sidibé was a photographer of note, that Magnin had acquired many of his negatives, and that many other negatives remained in Mali, and finally that these negatives could be made available to more white people under, well, under some circumstances or another.
Then, one imagines, that they got a grant to save Sidibé's work, at least some of it, from the predations of Euro Neocolonialist Powers (Magnin/Pigozzi/CAAC). Money in hand, they started to look for more awesome stuff. Days of sifting through negatives. O.M.G. this is all shit. It's just an endless parade of young people standing in front of shabby backdrops in a simple studio. Magnin has gotten all of it. The fucking tomb is empty. GOD DAMN YOU HOWARD CARTER!!!!!
Then, well, fuck. So they start digitizing what they've got, because, what the hell else are they gonna go? They have this fucking grant. Dreams of The Endowed Chair Of Pan-African Studies At Oxford turn to shit in their hands. Welp, that's how it is in the rough and tumble world of academia, eh?