Sunday 24 April 2016

Malick Sidibe... Fact, Distortion About 'Father Of African Photography'

By Tajudeen Sowole 
(First published in The Guardian Nigeria (
FOR inadequate documentation of African photography, the death of legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, raises the challenge of who belongs where among the continent's departed and living professionals of the lens art.
Malick Sidibe, (1935 - April 4, 2016)

                                    Sidibe, b.1935 and died on April 4, 2016, has been regarded in some sections of foreign media, particularly in Europe as 'father of African photography.' The late photographer's work is widely revered as being among the leading art of the lens in Africa. However, the appropriateness of conferring a 'father of African photography' on Sidibe has opened up a new debate on the continent and its photo artists. And it got louder when France's Culture Minister, Audrey Azoulay, re-echoed same feeling after Sidibe's death, saying, "he was often called the father of African photography."

The label appears to be gaining wider acceptance by the day, particularly, since the death of the photographer. But how did the author(s) arrive at such an error of 'crowning'?

Two issues come into focus in questioning the fatherly crown: there were successful pioneer African photographers before Sidibe's generation emerged. And his work is not the only internationally known among his generation of photographers, which also included, J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014) and Peter Obe (1932-2013), among others. The Malian legend enjoyed a wider visibility far above the Nigerians. No doubts, because he was like a phenomenon and lone ranger within the Malian space. It was natural that his work got so much attention outside his locality, particularly in France.

Perhaps, his well-celebrated status above his contemporaries swayed the 'father' accolade to his side. Even at death, it was reported that Mali took him as 'national treasure.' Few days after his death, a report had it that 'hundreds of Malians gathered at a football pitch in Daoudabougou, near Bamako for his burial.' 

 In 2007, he was honoured at Venice Biennale with Lifetime Achievement award. He was also honoured with a Hasselblad Award, a lifetime achievement award from the International Centre of Photography and a World Press Photo Prize.

 However, there are facts to disprove Sidibe’s toga of 'father of African photography'. In 2012, a visiting American art historian, Lisa Aronson, who was at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, revealed how history blurred a 19th century photographer, Jonathan Adagogo Green (1873 – 1905), who is of Ijaw origin. From the presentation of Aronson, which exposed the quality of Adagogo’s work, certain facts explained that the photographer’s career was cruelly blurred from art history.

Aronson, an Associate Prof of Art History at Skidmore College, US, teaches and writes mainly about African art and visual culture.

  If historians argued that J.A. Green practised at a time when photography was not exactly recognised as an art the way it turned out to be a century later, history cannot place the works of another Nigerian, Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911-1994) in the same fog.  As a prominent photographer of his time, Chief Alonge focused on the Benin Royal family among other subjects.

Apart from Alonge, there seemed to have existed other successful African photographers in the generations past. For example, when The Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C showed the works of Alonge two years ago during Nigeria's centenary, the museum noted that photography did not take much long to arrive in Africa shortly after its invention in 1839.

In its accounts of the lens profession, Smithsonian added: "In the late 19th to early 20th century, many West Africans took up the profession of photography." In fact, the records showed that "some were highly successful and profited from this new venture." Listed among such very successful African photographers of that era was Alonge.

Apart from the tragedy of inadequate documentation, which perhaps, blurred achievements of early African photographers before Sidibe, the period of the Malian's practice is clearly an advantage in visibility. But the number and texture of laurels Sidibe has won — above others who practised before him and during his contemporaries — should not be the reason to crown him as 'father of African photography.' If such criteria should be considered in other professions, for example, Lionel Messi should have been labeled as the 'Best' or 'Father' of Football. But the Brazilian legend, Pele still remains the Best Footballer of All Time, despite not collecting half of Messi's medals.

 If there was, or is, any African photographer whose work - style or technique - has brought more visible innovations to the lens art of Africa, Ojeikere fits such identity. The sculptural hairstyle of women captured by Ojeikere, over several decades remain great reference point in photography. Being one of the most exhibited African photographers, Ojeikere has been documented in J. D. Okhai Ojeikere: Photographs, a book on African hairstyles and culture authored by a French curator, Andre Magrin.

With the rich background of photography as an art in Africa, further research by scholars would most likely put records in proper perspective.

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