Check this out: Sandwiched between a liquor store and a nail salon on Second Avenue, there's a big picture window covered in brown paper. The paper will be torn down soon, revealing a new world contemporary art gallery run by a charismatic young Somali Frenchwoman who seemed to come out of nowhere—and who's kicking things off with a meaty solo show of Africa's most renowned living photographer.
"Holy crap, this is awesome!" says Rafael Soldi, Photo Center Northwest's outreach associate. "That's the first thing I thought when I heard. She was bringing something to Seattle that I think we don't have yet. I think it's her perspective."
She is Mariane Lenhardt.
And the photographer?
Malick Sidibé has run his own photography studio in Bamako, the capital of Mali, since 1958. He's still there, in a storefront in a busy district, cleaning and fixing his film cameras with his hands—despite the fact that for at least a decade he has also been a star at art fairs, exhibitions, and awards presentations around the world.
The 75-year-old Sidibé is a postcolonial hero, one of the first Africans to help Africans choose how to appear in photographs. He's a master of form, of pattern, of composition. Ranking high in the firmament, he's been compared to early 20th-century German portraitist August Sander, whose photographs form an archive of time and place yet are indissolubly individual.
But there's a less lofty side of Sidibé that's just as important. Lenhardt—her gallery will open with an exhibition of 30 of Sidibé's prints dating back to the 1960s—describes the photographer she thinks of as a kindred spirit: "What mattered to him was joy, music, and dance."
You see it immediately—in pictures close-up enough to be sweaty of boys and girls dancing like they're about to break out of the picture frame (in a time when boys and girls were not supposed to dance together), and in portraits of a whole family perched on Sidibé's motorcycle like a rock band, the father wearing Sidibé's big watch and mirrored shades. The fabrics on the walls and the floors are always jumping with patterns, every scene in crisp black and white.
A solo exhibition of Sidibé's photographs would be a coup for any gallery in any city, but especially a new gallery in Seattle. In 2010, Sidibé showed in London. His last solo shows in the United States, last year, were in Los Angeles and New York. Lenhardt got connected to Sidibé's work when she was living in Paris, through Olivier Sultan, founder of the Musée des Arts Derniers, which focuses on African artists. (Sultan is curator of the Seattle show and the subject of a photograph titled, in Sidibé's playful style, The Big Sultan.)
Back in the 1950s, Sidibé got his start when the French photographer Gérard Guillat invited him to apprentice. Mali was still under French rule; Guillat would take pictures at European parties in the city while Sidibé covered the African gatherings. In 1957, three years before Mali won independence, Guillat moved to New Caledonia, a French-controlled archipelago east of Australia, leaving the studio keys to Sidibé.
Coincidentally, years later, Mariane Lenhardt was born in New Caledonia. Her Somali parents had gone there to work. Her father, who is no longer alive, was born the same year as Sidibé (1936). Her Seattle gallery is called M.I.A., for Mariane Ibrahim Abdi, her father's name.
"I'm really proud to show Malick," she says, straightening her back as she says it. "It's so personal for me. I'm very attached to giving a fair image to Africa. There is a long tradition of guys who want to show we can have fun in Africa."
For Lenhardt as for Sidibé, liveliness comes before tradition or expectations. She is a living example of cross-cultural improvisation: After New Caledonia, she spent part of her childhood in Somalia among her Muslim extended family, then the rest in France. She married a white, non-Muslim Frenchman named Pierre, whose job at Boeing brought them to Seattle.
"I am prepared to accept any remarks," she says about people coming to the gallery. "But when they see the pictures, I just can't wait to see their smile."
The gallery will feature emerging and established artists from all over the world, including an upcoming show with popular Senegalese artist Soly Cissé. "I don't have any limits," Lenhardt says, "except, and this is egocentric, I'm going to show how I see the world. I believe in social change. I want to say, 'Okay, the world is changing.' People are getting rebellious—the 99 percent and the 1 percent.
"I also believe that mixing doesn't mean you lose identity; I believe it makes you strong. I speak my [Somali] language; I write my language. It's up to you if you lose your memory, and Malick is the visual memory of a generation."
She plans to hold fundraisers—first, to help Sidibé give cameras to youth. "When people don't have to choose between feeding and creating, then Africa will be full of artists. When there's artists, there's democracy, and when there's democracy, there's peace."
In 2004, after the war, she returned to Somalia with her own camera. What she found were troves of ancient paintings—unprotected, undocumented. She set up an NGO to begin research and preservation, winning support from the World Monuments Fund. But when divided parties within Somalia asked her to take political sides, she stepped away. "I still have the map of 50 places," she says. "I'll save it for a little later, when the country is more solid. Because I went around to all those villages. I'm the only one with the map of all 50."
Until then, she says, "Come to the gallery. Let me make you happy for a few minutes."
This post has been updated since its original publication.