Social history and cultural heritage of Mali: preserving the archives of professional photographers (EAP449)

Aims and objectives

Among the earliest professional African photographers in Mali, the negative archives of Abdourahmane Sakaly and Mamadou Cissé contain rare historical documentation of traditional life (rural, ethnic-based customs, ceremonies, and artefacts) and processes of urban development. Spanning the eras of French colonialism, political independence, and socialism, their archives record important socio-political transformations of present-day Mali and its capital, Bamako, which evolved from a small agrarian trading village into a cosmopolitan city during the twentieth century. Employed by colonial and national governments, while operating private studio enterprises, each collection houses unique archives representing African perspectives of local histories and practices, including personal and family portraiture, military activities, visits of foreign dignitaries, and images of the coup d’état that toppled the regime of the nation’s first president, Modibo Keïta. They also feature the construction of monuments, architectural structures, bridges, dams, roadways, as well as prominent Muslim and animist religious leaders, cultural ceremonies, and fluctuating trends in personal adornment, fashion, and photographic practices during the 1940s-60s.

These images are significant for the social history and cultural heritage of Mali, as well as the artistic legacy of these locally, and internationally, celebrated photographers. They are also important for scholarship on colonial and post-colonial histories in western Africa, and studies of local art, culture, and aesthetics. However, due to an unfavourable climactic environment (heat, dust, flooding) and poor storage conditions (piled in metal trunks and dirty cardboard boxes, stacked on the floor) these archives are highly vulnerable and in need of rescuing.

Over the course of twelve months, this project will clean, digitise, list, and improve the storage conditions of approximately 25,000 of the oldest and most vulnerable of the 150,000 original medium format, black-and-white negatives as a means to protect their integrity in local collections. The images will be made accessible for scholarly research and educational purposes both in Mali and around the globe via the open-source, database-driven, online digital repository application KORA managed by MATRIX at Michigan State University. Copies will be deposited with the British Library and with the Maison Africaine de la Photographie in Bamako. The latter institution developed out of the Recontres biennial of African Photography in Bamako, where it was created to serve as a local archive, school, and museum of photography.

This digitisation project should help to protect the physical integrity of the original negatives and to promote their accessibility to local and international studies, while safeguarding the archives from theft by local and foreign art dealers, collectors, and scholars who recognise the commercial value of these materials in international art markets.

This year-long project, which centres on the earliest and most endangered archives, is the initial stage of a larger collaborative project designed to digitise the vulnerable archives of historically significant professional photographers working in Mali from the 1940s-90s. Therefore, the equipment employed in this project will remain in Mali at the Maison Africaine de la Photographie for continued use in archival access and for the multi-year expansion of this digitisation archival project. Through the cooperation of the national professional photographers’ association in Bamako (GNPPM), of which Abdourahmane Sakaly was the first president and Malick Sidibé is the current president, and the Maison Africaine de la Photographie (MAP), it is hoped to develop a national foundation for photography in Mali, featuring a public library and archive, as well as workshop and exhibition space.

This major project is critical for the preservation and study of Mali’s social history, cultural heritage, and earliest visual records. Vulnerable to the harsh climatic and impoverished storage conditions, immediate action is imperative to prevent further loss of these rare documents and to ensure the viability of future studies.