July 10, 2019

The Fulcrum of Desire

By Emmanuel Iduma

Photography is like hunting, Malick Sidibé says.

When we visit, he is wearing a fitted white jalabiya, sitting outside a house, part of a cluster of buildings, each coated in reddish brown. His eyesight is failing. I cover his hands in mine, in greeting. A woman and a man prepare him for the public eye. The woman brings a towel and spreads it across his lap; the man brings sunglasses. I am overwhelmed. I feel as though his entire oeuvre is compressed into a moment in time, this.

Before we talk, we are shown into a room with his negatives, old equipment, and stacks of photo albums.

Things are in bad shape, worn by time, layered with dust. Some of the dust will leave with us. There’s a bed in the room. Perhaps he lies here when exhausted, to remember photographs, without looking at them.

We sit and he talks. Igo Diarra of Medina Gallery, our host and guide, translates the conversation from French. Sidibé tells us he started drawing in 1945, using charcoal. He drew because he wanted to imitate natural forms.

Because he has never used a digital camera, he conceives photography as an act of deliberation. He learnt what e knew about photography by observing closely. To observe is to be alert, to find precision, balance.

Now that he is losing his eyesight, Sidibé cannot continue working. I suppose that not even impaired eyesight can take away his ability to perceive images. Every nerve in his body seems to respond to light and movement. Time has slowed him down, but he is here, still.

Sidibé asks the young man to bring us a photograph from 1963. It is his favourite and known round the world as one of his most iconic; a young man and woman dancing during a Christmas party. It had to be about dancing, I think, remembering something about dance being the fulcrum of
desire. Photography is a charismatic medium. Sometimes it takes five decades for a photograph to unravel itself.

In the photograph, the girl was barefoot, the boy was wearing a suit and tie, and their knees could touch, it seemed, at any minute. What interested me were the smiles on their faces, and the girl’s arm, which held her gown in place; a dance of such zest threatened to reveal her underwear. I wonder what he thought when he took that photograph.

Excerpted from A Stranger’s Pose, a collection of short travel stories, by Emmanuel Iduma, First Published by Cassava Republic Press, 2018.


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