Hamidou Maiga: Talking Timbuktu
Above Untitled. (©Hamidou Maiga/Courtesy the Jack Bell Gallery).
Born in Bobodioulasso, Burkina Faso in 1932, Hamidou Maiga trained as a mason in Timbuktu, before purchasing his first camera, a medium format Semflex in the early 1950s, and moving to Mopti — the Malian city formed of three islands at the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Bani — to learn the fundamentals of the photographers craft.
Following his apprenticeship, which saw the young photographer focus on photojournalism — a discipline that he considered offered the best opportunity to perfect his photographic skills — he purchased a set of darkroom equipment from a Ghanaian colleague, and began a two-year journey tracing the route of the River Niger from Mopti to Timbuktu. In making this journey he would become one of the first photographers to take a camera out into the Niger region of Mali, frequently encountering villagers and townspeople who had never been photographed before.
Having established his first studio in N’Gouma in 1958, Maiga returned to his home town of Timbuktu in 1960, where he set up business, having firmly established a national reputation with his distinctive ‘outdoor studio’ portraits, which ‘reflect both his client’s social identity within the community and their enthusiastic embrace of modernity.’
As Mali made the transition from French colony to independence in 1960, the significance of Maiga’s portraits grew, offering an important social document of Malian society and culture, and placing his oeuvre alongside that of the West African countries great photographers, Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), and his good friend Malick Sidibé. Although unlike both Keïta and Sidibé, Maiga’s archive has only recently come to the attention of the international art world, with his first ever exhibition, Talking Timbuktu, currently on show at the Jack Bell Gallery in London.
Whether photographing villagers in all their finery, the regions celebrated artists and musicians, or religious and political dignitaries, Maiga balances, ‘a strict sense of formality with a remarkable level of intimacy with his subjects,’ remarks Bell, which ‘evokes stylistic traits simultaneously mastered by Irving Penn in the seminal Worlds in a Small Room (Viking, 1974).’
With independence from France, Mali experienced a great sense of freedom and saw significant economic growth, and with this new found wealth, came the cultural influences of America and Europe. Maiga’s graphic portraits reflected these influences, with each portrait, he constructed an ‘image using a mixture of carefully chosen props, costume and painted backgrounds, says Bell, ‘His subjects would dress like their idols and a specific film or look would dictate the way they wore their jackets or held their cigarettes.’
Hamidou Maiga: Talking Timbuktu is at the Jack Bell Gallery, London until 30 April 2011.