Photographer Explored the Female Gaze in 1960s Mali

In June 1960, Mali became an independent nation, which changed the lives of an entire people. During an exhibition organized by MACAAL (the Musée d’Art Contemporain Africain Al Maaden) in late February, images by the late Malian photographer Seydou Keïta were put up for the public to see. The iconic photographs are a historical treasure because they capture Malian women in the 1960s immediately before and after independence.

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Keïta Defined African Independence

Many view Keïta’s photographs as having helped shape the face of African independence both in men and women. He rose to prominence and gained international recognition after joining a group exhibition of African photographers in Guggenheim in 1996. Many stories from the golden age of studio photography from the 1960s centers on the female gaze, and for good reason.  

Mali Through the Female Gaze

Up until this exhibition began, most of the popular images of Mali’s studio photography archives featured predominantly male subjects and mixed couples. This is one of the first female-only photo sessions that capture the self-determination and strength of Malian women in the 1960s. You can easily spot how the women went into the studio wearing their finest clothes and trying to look their best. The entire exhibition shows how women wanted to be seen without them being objectified in the process.

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One Face, a Thousand Stories

Even though the women’s names in the portraits are not credited, they lift the curtain into their lives, thus showing the lives of many others in the first years of independence. You will see groups of friends, mothers and daughters, young women, teenagers, aunties, basically women of every age. Their gaze is vivid, moving, and painfully reminiscent as seen from the perspective of the present day.