Photography: Who Owns Seydou KeÔøΩta?

MICHAEL RIPS – The New York Times

Published: January 22, 2006 Copyright The New York Times
EVEN by the elevated standard of the New York art world, the rumor was exceptional: a tin of negatives buried in Africa for three decades that, when opened, revealed the work of a photographer who was neither “outsider” nor “indigenous” but spectacularly modern. And so the bejeweled and bohemian showed up at the Gagosian Gallery the evening of Oct. 18, 1997, wearing Fulani bracelets beneath their Charvet cuffs, blouses referencing Matisse referencing North African fabrics, Xhosa men in dinner jackets.
Courtesy of Association Saydou Keita, Bamako; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; and JM Patras
A portraits made in the 1950’s by Seydou KeÔta of Bamako, Mali, of middle-class subjects.
The Ghosts of Seydou Keita
Forum: Artists and Exhibitions
Courtesy of Association Saydou Keita, Bamako; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; and JM Patras
A 1949 self-portrait of Mr. KeÔta, who died in 2001, at about 80.
As accustomed as they were to art-world rumors, as familiar as they had become with exaggerations in the photo market, they could not help but be impressed. They saw mural-size black-and-white portraits in which the intricate designs of tribal costumes were set against backdrops of arabesque and floral cloths, the subjects disappearing into dense patterning that suggested Vuillard. A number of the photographs sold immediately, at prices of up to $16,000, and by the end of the evening, many in the crowd stood childlike in front of their limousines, waiting to catch sight of the photographer whose images they would never forget.
He finally appeared, old and regal.
The show was uniformly well received. Margarett Loke, writing in The New York Times, described Seydou KeÔta as “the man who brought renewed vitality to the art of photographic portraiture.” An article in Artforum praised the show, noting that the photographs “were very successful with sophisticated New Yorkers.”
Not long after the exhibition, I received a phone call from a man I knew as Ibrahim. He had something to show me. A trader from Mali, Ibrahim would frequently appear at my door with garbage bags of fetish figures that he had brought back from his trips to Africa. The objects that I did not buy he took to others, and at the end of the day, to a mini-storage facility in Chelsea where West African traders do business, play music and entertain their relatives.
That day Ibrahim carried no bags. After a few minutes of conversation, he reached into his pocket and extracted a small piece of paper. On the front was the image of a young African woman. The contrast and density of the blacks and whites were minimal, the light modest, and the patterns on the costumes barely visible.
I turned the photograph over. “KeÔta Seydou, Photographe Bamako – Contra en face prison civile Bamako (Sudan FranÁais)”. And then a date: “3 Avr 1959.”
I was confused. This photograph was nothing like the colossal high-contrast portraits that I had seen at the gallery. But this, Ibrahim explained, was an original. This was what Mr. KeÔta’s modest photography studio made. I was later told that there were only a handful of such prints. (I bought it for several hundred dollars and went on to buy other prints; they are no longer a part of my collection.)
The story of this discrepancy – how a pocket-size print, sold for a few dollars in a neighborhood shop in West Africa, became a wall-size photograph that sold for $16,000 in an upscale SoHo gallery – begins in colonial Mali in the 1930’s and continues into the future: a new show of Mr. KeÔta’s work opens at the Sean Kelly Gallery in Chelsea on Friday.
It is a story that includes screaming fights, a lawsuit and charges of theft, forgery and perjury. It survives the photographer himself, who died in 2001. And it touches on the broadest channels of human history, from colonialism to capitalism to revolution to race. But it also involves a conflict of the most rarefied sort – a philosophical disagreement over the nature of photography and the concept of authenticity.
IN the 1930’s, Seydou KeÔta, who was then young, uneducated and working in his father’s carpentry shop, received a Brownie camera (producing a 6-by-9-centimeter negative) from his uncle. In 1948, Mr. KeÔta (pronounced kay-EE-tah) set up a commercial studio in downtown Bamako, across from the city’s prison and down the street from the train station. He was poor, so he made prints, using a 5-by-7-inch view camera, by placing the negative directly against the photographic paper, used his bed sheet as a backdrop, and photographed outdoors using available light.
Despite this, his portraits were a success.
Unlike his predecessors, who had photographed Africans to encourage missionary work or justify colonization, or as erotica, Mr. KeÔta made photographs of Africans for their own personal use, and he revealed them as they had not been seen before: wearing Western suits and bow ties (his own), sitting on motorbikes or holding radios, or cradling a single flower, a reference to the Symbolists taught in Mali’s French schools. For the others, it was a mixture of Western dress and African poses, African dress and Western poses – people defining themselves at the uneven edge of modernity.
Okwui Enwezor, a scholar of photography and curator of a 1996 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that included Mr. KeÔta’s work, maintained that in the amount of information he conveys about his middle-class subjects, in the controlled complexity of the portraits and the high level of quality maintained over a great volume, his work is “comparable to the portraiture of Rembrandt.” What makes this all the more astounding, he added, is that Mr. KeÔta was “working outside any aesthetic discourse” – that is, he was uneducated in the history of art and photography. Mr. KeÔta claimed that when he set up his studio, there were only four other studio photographers in Mali.
Following that nation’s independence in 1960, he was told to close his studio and work for the government. When he resisted, he once recounted, a general visited his studio. Mr. KeÔta closed up shop, locking his roughly 7,000 negatives in a tin and burying them in his yard.
Fifteen years later, near the day when he retired from government, someone broke into his studio and stole his photography equipment. To support himself, he began to fix mopeds, converting his studio into a repair shop.
It was there, in 1990, that he met FranÁoise Huguier, a French photojournalist. Ms. Huguier arranged for a small number of Mr. KeÔta’s photographs to be exhibited outside of Africa, where they came to the attention of Jean Pigozzi, heir to the Simca car fortune and one of the world’s pre-eminent collectors of contemporary African art. In 1992 Mr. Pigozzi sent AndrÈ Magnin, the curator of Mr. Pigozzi’s African collection, to Bamako to find the photographer, and Mr. Magnin returned with 921 negatives.
He made prints from those negatives, which appeared a couple of years later at an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris and then in 1997 at a solo show at the Scalo Gallery in Zurich, accompanied by a book called “Seydou KeÔta: An African Photographer.” Walter Keller, curator of the Scalo show and editor of the book, said the prints at both those shows were 20 by 24 inches – bigger than the originals (5 by 7 inches) but not yet enormous. By the time the new prints reached the Gagosian exhibition four months later, some had grown to 48 by 60 inches.
Mr. Magnin sold the prints he made to Mr. Pigozzi and to other collectors, galleries and museums. Mr. Enwezor credits him with bringing Mr. KeÔta to the attention of the world.
Mr. KeÔta, however, was not pleased. Jean-Marc Patras, a well-known agent for African artists and musicians, said that Mr. KeÔta believed that Mr. Magnin was making unauthorized prints and signing them. “I absolutely deny these accusations,” Mr. Magnin said. “Seydou KeÔta was involved in every decision, was aware of every print made, and signed every print that has his signature. We were also very careful about giving him an accounting of the money that we received for the prints.”
Mr. Pigozzi said on Tuesday that without AndrÈ Magnin’s and his efforts, Mr. KeÔta “would have been totally forgotten.” They published an important book, he continued, and got his work into the collections of major museums. “Also with our help, KeÔta was able to finally make a lot of money by selling his prints in a very orderly way,” Mr. Pigozzi said, adding that Mr. Patras, however, had managed to make a mess of things.
At the time of the Gagosian show, Mr. KeÔta met with Sean Kelly of the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. “KeÔta,” he said, “was not pleased with what Pigozzi and Magnin were doing with his photographs, which is why KeÔta approached me.” But it wasn’t until 2001 that the photographer severed his ties with them.
A relative of Mr. KeÔta, Kader KeÔta, a former diplomat who was present for a meeting between Mr. KeÔta and Mr. Magnin, said: “Seydou was furious about the possibility that Magnin was forging Seydou’s signature. Seydou also wanted the negatives back.” He assigned the exclusive rights to sell his photographs to Mr. Patras. The negatives were not returned. Mr. Patras went to work on an exhibition of Mr. KeÔta’s photographs at the Sean Kelly Gallery. Weeks before the exhibition was scheduled to open in 2001, Mr. KeÔta flew to Paris to confront Mr. Magnin, Mr. Patras says. But within days of his arrival, Mr. KeÔta was dead at around 80.
see the complete article at the link below for a very rewarding read.

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