What It Means to Yearn:
One Photograph by Seydou Keita
The picture I gravitate to—the one I carry in my memory for months after the exhibition has closed—is the least characteristic of all the photographs hanging on the gallery walls. It is a picture of a young man, perhaps in his early 20s, dressed in a suit and tie and looking out at the viewer with a wary gaze. A restrained portrait, a little austere even, with an air of sadness about it. And completely unlike anything around it.
To walk into a room of Seydou Keita portraits is to encounter the kind of visual exuberance generally associated with Matisse—only in black and white. At least at first glance, the prevailing tone of these portraits, mostly of young Africans, is one of gaiety, as vivid pattern jostles against vivid pattern in a flat pictorial space.
From 1948 to the 1960s, Keita ran a portrait studio in the city of Bamako, a major port along the Niger River and the Capitol of what was then the French Sudan. (Today, Bamako is the Capitol of Mali, one of the five poorest countries on earth.) As the Capitol and a vital link to Dakar, the city had a cosmopolitan edge that attracted the young and ambitious looking for education, work, and intimations of French culture. Eventually, these strivers all seem to have made their way to Keita’s studio.
In the show at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, the people Keita had photographed were predominantly women. They had arrived for their portrait session in traditional dress, and the photographer had posed them against an assortment of highly patterned backdrops—bedspreads, tribal textiles, wallpaper. The immediate effect was one of delight: juxtaposing pattern on pattern on pattern, Keita forged a visual style seemingly designed to bring a smile to your face.
That air of gaiety was frequently undercut by the demeanor of Keita’s subjects, who most often strike a formal pose or offer their most sober face to the camera. As Keita himself once observed, “To have your photo taken was an important event.” Most of his subjects came for a suitable image to send to distant families, and they wanted to project an aura of respectability and prosperity. Some of the pictures, like the one of a woman resting her arms on a radio, speak to the influx of Western goods in post-war Mali and signal the aspirations to modernity of Keita’s clientele. The radio is a recurring prop in the pictures, as are a Vespa, a bicycle, a telephone, a Singer sewing machine, even a car. These objects, icons of European culture, were largely supplied by Keita himself since most Bamakoises couldn’t afford such luxury goods. Indeed, the photographer kept three different European-style suits on hand to lend out to customers intent on impressing the folks back home.
Keita was born in Bamako, the son of a furniture-maker. Growing up, he expected to enter his father’s business but, as fate would have it, his uncle Tiemoko gave him a Brownie camera he’d picked up in Senegal. For the 14-year-old Seydou, it was love Largely self-taught, he picked up the basics of darkroom work from two established Bamako practitioners—Mountaga Dembele and Pierre Garnier—and, in 1949, opened up his own shop. Judging from the numbers—Keita’s archive consists of more than 7,000 negatives—his fellow Bamakoises flocked to his studio.
Keita stayed in business until the 1960s, when he was recruited as official photographer for the newly independent Malian government. In that capacity, he was more or less enjoined from continuing with his own business. So, he closed his studio and buried his negatives in the backyard. Decades later, in 1990, Keita was “discovered” by Françoise Huguier, a French photojournalist who helped introduce Keita’s work to European and American viewers.
Look closely at his images and you see just how psychologically astute Keita was. Many are family portraits: a pair of women dressed in identical garb, sisters I assume, one timid, one serene. In one grouping, a stern matriarch poses with her two daughters and four grandchildren—all equally grave; in another, three young women, with three toddlers in tow, flirt a little with the camera. One dreamy girl, her hair in a flip and her cheek resting on her hand, is dressed all in white. In one series of single portraits, the subjects stand in virtually the same pose, with one foot resting on a chair, left arm akimbo, but each woman presents a different expression: one’s a little cocky, with a sly come-hither look; another slouches diffidently; another studiously holds an open book on her knee.
And then there’s the young man—one of only a handful of men in the show—whom I can’t get out of my mind. His persistence puzzles me, for almost all Keita’s people have a powerful presence, not easily dismissed or forgotten. But this young man has followed me around as none of the others has. Walking into work, I’ll think about him, for no apparent reason, and wonder what became of him. I can construct a fantasy narrative of his life: he made his way through university, educated on the French model. When independence came in the early 1960s, he foresaw, with his fellow citizens, a bright future for the new nation. But, conversant with the grandes philosophes, Racine and Moliere, the Academie Française, he found himself adrift in a country that needed people versed in the practical arts—engineering, agriculture, mining. What became of him?
Perhaps he worked as a low-level civil servant, perhaps he became a school teacher, or perhaps, he eked out a living, farming his father’s land, operating a shop in town, importing goods from Ivory Coast or Senegal. Or maybe he migrated to Paris to work in construction. He may have died years ago—the life expectancy for Malian men is 47 years. Odds are good that he lives—or lived—below the poverty line, as do 64 percent of his countrymen. If my speculation about his education is true, he was almost a rarity in his homeland. Mali’s literacy rate is 46 percent.
Photographs are dodgy by nature—at once artistic creation, social document, and personal testament. As artwork, they are the product of a driving aesthetic, in this case, Keita’s compelling mix of composure and exuberance. As documents, they offer up evidence of the particular time and place of their making, here, a mid-20th century colonial outpost straddling two cultures. As testimony, they serve as trace evidence, proof positive that this particular person once sat patiently for the photographer’s camera—as if insisting, “Yes, I am here.”
As social document, Keita’s image speaks subtly, but nonetheless powerfully, of the chasm that separates me, standing in a sleek New York gallery, from the young man who sat for his portrait, wearing borrowed clothes and a borrowed watch. Because, no matter how much I might admire Keita’s art and no matter how drawn I am to his subjects, the politics of our different circumstances can’t be overlooked. In point of fact, I haven’t a clue about this young man. I’ve made up a biography (or rather, alternate biographies) for a complete stranger whose life could not have been very much more foreign to me, whose circumstances I can only begin to imagine by consulting history books, travel narratives, and government statistics.
To be honest, I can’t even be sure about the picture itself. In my memory, the sitter wears a watch—it’s there, right at the lower edge of the image. But search as I may—on the Internet, in books—I can’t find the picture exactly as I recall it. On the Sean Kelly website, I find one of the same genus: Untitled #452, 1950-52, depicts a seated young man. But the details are off: the missing watch, a too-dark suit, and a more assertive gaze than that of the gentle soul I recall.
My research has told me something about the world this long-ago young man occupied, but what draws me to his picture isn’t the historical meaning of his situation but rather the immediacy of his presence. Perhaps this, after all, is the key to the power photographs hold over us. For all the efforts to tame the photographic image, to strip it of its authority, it still wields a talismanic power. We’ve had decades of artists and critics and theorists drumming into us the facts—indisputable all—that the whole notion of photographic evidence is deeply suspect, that photographs are cultural constructs, that the camera is an inveterate liar. And yet a particular photograph can appear before us that wields an enigmatic power, like an emissary beckoning from another country, another continent, another century.
But what is it about this particular image? Although I’ve devoted some effort to trying to understand the time and place in which it was made, I’m not drawn to this photograph for the facts it has to teach. In a very important sense, photographs have little to teach: they can show us the conditions of post-war, pre-independence Mali—what kind of clothing people wore, what books they were reading, what kind of vehicles they drove. But we need text—deep, nuanced description—to understand why such conditions prevailed.
So it is not the societal meaning of the image that moves me so deeply: not curiosity about a different culture, nor outrage at the legacy of colonialism, nor distress at the poverty of his circumstances. It is, rather, what seems to me his personal predicament—the palpability of his ambition. It is true, of course, that his striving seems all the more poignant because he strives in a place of such scarcity: he wears a Western suit, but it hangs so loosely on his frame that you understand it’s not his—it’s been borrowed specifically for the occasion. He lays his wrist before him, but it is so carefully positioned in the frame that you suspect he’s placed it there, in the foreground of the picture, to ensure that the viewers back home will take note of his wristwatch and the prosperity it implies.
Back in high school, I’d take the bus from Jersey into Manhattan. I haunted the art film houses. I saw “Ugetsu” and “Rules of the Game” at the Elgin, “The Blue Angel” at the New Yorker. I’d go to the Modern and the Met, eat at the Horn and Hardart’s on 57th Street. I began learning the subways then and the neighborhoods and the lower reaches of Central Park. But what I remember most vividly from that time is leaving the city. As the bus pulled out of the Port Authority, I’d gaze out at the windows of the fifth-floor walk-ups, their lights just being turned on in the early evening return from work. I remember feeling such a pull to this place: I wanted nothing more than to live here—to be a New Yorker.
After college, I did just that, moving into a cheap one-bedroom on the Upper West Side, still a possibility back then. My friends and I spent our days struggling to make some small mark in the city and our evenings aspiring to our dream of a Manhattan life. I remember knowing what films were opening every week and making sure to see the ones that mattered; following City Ballet and Joe Papp; doing the gallery rounds on Saturday afternoons. We were dreadful little snobs but we were poor little snobs who scoped out the best Midtown happy hours, the ones with chafing dishes from which we could scrounge dinners of wings and Swedish meatballs; who bought only the cheap seats at the New York State Theater; who cadged free books from our friends in publishing.
We’ve all scattered now—to Providence, Ithaca, Williamstown, Boston. I live in Philadelphia, and the last hold-out just decamped for Edinburgh. I can’t tell you what happened to all of us—exactly why Rob moved out to Jersey or Karen went back to Chicago. But I do remember, late one day in my tenure, walking down Upper Broadway and thinking, “The problem with New York is that it’s like living on a movie set. You never get around to your own life.”
Within six months, I was gone. Or that’s how I remember it: one day I was there, walking home through the Park, the city lights flickering through the winter trees. Or drinking Blue Hawaiis at the Empire Szechuan with Alice in our Friday-after-work ritual of release and Cold Sesame Noodles. Or sitting in the corner at one of the late-night parties thrown by my downstairs neighbor, an actress-turned-writer who drank too much and ended each evening quarreling with one guest or another.
One day I was there, and the next, somewhere else. Somewhere not New York, somewhere that let normal life transpire, where you weren’t dogged by the romance of it all—the Gershwin tunes, the Oyster Bar, the Manhattan skyline. Where you could get around to your own life.
Still, to this day, I can’t walk along Columbus Avenue in the 90s without feeling haunted by my younger self, without missing the person I was—so serious and hungry to make my way, to be somebody.
And that’s the secret hold Keita’s young man has over me: looking at his image, I have a frisson of recognition, of fellow feeling. His air of aspiration reminds me of my own youthful self. His expression—that of someone about to launch into life and career—is all eager under the wariness, a bit apprehensive, perhaps even self-deprecating, but still full of hope.
He reminds me what it is to yearn.
Nancy Brokaw is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in photography criticism. She has contributed articles to The Photo Review, The Photography Criticism CyberArchive, Photographers International, Art India, and Fiber Arts Magazine. In 2003, she received a Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts Fellowship for Arts Commentary.