Art & Art History ETDs

Publication Date



This thesis examines the writing, exhibitions, and discourses that have accompanied the translocation of Seydou Keïta's photographs from the center of the French Sudan to the core of the New York art world. Between 1948 and 1962. this Malian photographer established a commercial portrait studio in the city of Bamako, then the capital of the French Sudan and now the capital of Mali. He produced a body of portraits that catered to the aesthetics of a West African clientele on the verge of colonial independence. Nearly forty years later. these photographs resurfaced in the exhibition Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art, which opened in 1991 at the Center for African Art in New York and initiated a rebirth of Keïta's career on an international scale. In reviewing subsequent exhibitions, changes in scholarship on African art, social politics. and the discourses around portrait photography, this thesis will focus on the terms that have come to describe Keïta's work in a fine art context.

Since the Africa Explores exhibition in 1991, Keila's photographs have offered a form of representation that is antithetical to traditional portraiture. His pictorial language-a juxtaposition of fabrics. diagonal composition, props, confrontational gazes, and rich clarity-challenges Western visual styles in both photography and painting while celebrating an under-acknowledged cultural history. This thesis concludes with three points. 1) Keïta's profile in the contemporary art world reflects the growing centrality of postmodernist and postcolonial discourses. 2) The term "syncretic" is more useful, revealing the precolonial influences of Islam and West African traditions that come to bear on Keïta's style. 3) On another level, the influx of interest in Keïta's work by Western contemporary art institutions maps a change of interest in not merely Africa itself, but in how the West looks to reconcile unequal social exchanges previously exhibited in Eurocentric practices.



Document Type


Degree Name

Art History

Level of Degree


Department Name

UNM Department of Art and Art History

First Committee Member (Chair)

Geoffrey Batchen

Second Committee Member

Kathleen Stewart Howe

Third Committee Member

David Craven