Two photography exhibitions worth a short road trip close this weekend at museums in Winter Park and Lakeland. (Why not make a day of it and wrap up with a locavore feast at the Ravenous Pig or Cask & Larder in Winter Park?)
The Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College centers their fall exhibitions on Malick Sidibé, a Malian photographer whose black-and-white studio portraiture and documentary work from the 1960s have earned him international fame. Studio Malick features a thrilling quantity of works — about 150 studio portraits and another 300 or so small pictures of the kind that Sidibé would print at the end of a long night documenting Bamako dance parties and assemble into folders called chemises. The middle- and working-class youth whom Sidibé photographed would come by his studio the next day and pick photos to buy — as a memento of the evening or a gift for a prospective sweetheart — by perusing the chemises.
The exhibition powerfully conveys the aspects of Sidibé’s photography that have made it so iconic in subsequent years. Thanks to the intoxicating cocktail of youth, Malian independence from France, and an influx of music and fashion from abroad, the subjects of Sidibé’s portraits are, for the most part, imbued with energy and hope; that alone would make them interesting. To this great raw material, Sidibé adds a keen and sometimes mischievous eye. Seydou Keïta, a Bamako-based portraitist about 15 years older, was known for doing a similar thing — creating striking portraits of middle-class Malians who showcased their adoption of Western fashions or the rich patterns of their West African dress. As if wanting to go a step further, Sidibé shot his subjects against flatter, more geometric backdrops. Stripes and checkerboards fuse with patterned outfits in photographs with the look of painterly Op Art.
In a documentary film on display in the exhibition, Sidibé (who is now 78 or 77; his birth year is uncertain) explains that his studio functioned as a place where customers could try on different identities. The 1964 portrait “Mr. Dembelé, Secret Agent” offers an especially delightful example. One might ask whether part of the attraction of Sidibé’s photography for American audiences is that it puts on display a type of African identity we can be comfortable with — one based in freedom, consumerism and happiness. A cynic would point out that we give short shrift to other kinds of images of from Africa. An exhibition wall text does a great job of posing a related and complex question: How did all these images of individual people, taken for a basic commercial purpose, become works of art hanging in a gallery? It may be that what appeals to us about Sidibé’s images is the degree to which they work like a mirror — we see ourselves in them, as well as “the other.”
Other fascinating objects on view, in separate exhibitions, include a series of intricately handmade and brilliantly colored paper sculptures of Florida birds by 26-year-old Colombian artist Diana Beltrán Herrera and a selection of prints from CFAM’s collection that presents a who’s who of post-WWII American artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Serra and Frank Stella.
At the Polk Museum of Art, reGeneration2: Tomorrow’s Photographers Today features 105 images by emerging photographers from 31 countries around the world. The exhibition, which began traveling in 2010, was organized by the Swiss photography museum Musée de l’Elysée, along with the Aperture Foundation, and culled from 700 submissions by 120 art schools. It is the follow-up to a successful 2005 exhibition and book, reGeneration.
The exhibition is dense with pictures that deserve more space and careful consideration. At least three major themes emerge. In the category of strong, risk-taking documentary, Jen Osborne (Canadian, born 1984) wows with her photographs of female inmates at Bangu Prison Complex in Rio de Janeiro, which vividly blend beauty and bleakness. Florian Joye (Swiss, born 1979) offers a peek at the second theme, globalism and its quirky discontents, with his photograph of a kitschy hi-tech billboard melding American landmarks into an advertisement for real estate development in Dubai. The third theme, digital dreams, encompasses computer-assisted endeavors that range from the subtle — “I remember,” a dreamy blue-and-white cloudscape by Liu Xiaofang (China, born 1980) — to the hilariously fictional, like a portrait by Barbora Zurkova and Radim Zurek (Czech, born 1987 and 1971) of a young girl whose face has been replaced with Scarlett Johansson’s. Altogether, it’s an eyeful not to be missed.