Surprise Party, 1964 By Malick Sidibé
My interest in the politics and aesthetics of photography started from an unlikely source: Dambudzo Marechera, the enfantterrible of African literature. In his seminal text The House of Hunger, a coming of age novella set in the 60s and 70s, he writes about Solomon, a township photographer who could obliterate ‘the squalor of reality’ with his photographs. His customers, who have little hope of ever leaving the township can only realize their dreams of escape through the illusions he creates:
Photographs of Africans in European wigs… Africans who pierce the focusing lens with a gaze of paranoia. The background of each photo is the same: waves breaking upon a virgin beach and a lone eagle swiveling like glass fracturing light towards the potent spaces of the universe. A cruel yearning that can only be realized in crude photography.
The residents of Marechera’s house of hunger were growing up in the era of Malick Sidibé’s early photography. At the time, they were bombarded with images from colonial media institutions. These constructions of blackness were proverbial masks that, writes Laura Taitz in Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera “served to hamper any attempt at self-definition or self-representation.” The masks embody the contradictions of colonized identities and the politics of representation, subjects Marechera obsessively grappled with in his subsequent works, Black Sunlight and The Black Insider.
Sidibé is the antithesis of Solomon. He set out to change the idea of black beauty and fashion through his street photography and studio portraits instead of imposing or maintaining the prevailing photographic models based on Western aesthetics.