At the Arts Club

Jeremy Harding

The photographer Sanlé Sory was born in the 1940s in French West Africa. At independence in 1960 he became a ‘Voltaic’, or a citizen of Haute Volta, and in 1984, a ‘Burkinabe’: the new head of state, Thomas Sankara, had combined two non-colonial languages to rename Haute Volta as Burkina Faso, ‘the land of the upright’. By then Sory’s work had consigned him to the land of the slightly stooped, gazing through the viewfinder or bent over the developing tray, even though in his self-portraits he is a paragon of ‘uprightness’, short and muscular, with an obvious liking for the gym. Within a few years of independence he was running a studio in Bobo Dioulasso, 350 km west of the capital Ouagadougou, and building up a remunerative sideline putting on dance parties and doing artwork for vinyl recordings by Burkinabe musicians. Many of his negatives and prints have survived, and so has he. Recently his work has been shown at the Cartier Foundation in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago. A small exhibition at the Arts Club in Dover Street (until 31 January, by appointment) gives a good idea of his studio portraits, despite the fact that the prints – twenty or so – are on display in a room that serves them badly. Most are hung way above head height: a set of library steps would have come in useful, but a pain in the neck just about does the trick.

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[*] Jeremy Harding wrote about Seydou Keïta in the LRB of 30 June 2016.