Malick Sidibé’s Mali: Scenes of a Rollicking Night Life

The renowned Malian musician Boubacar Traoré — whose hypnotic song “Mali Twist” gives the exhibition at the Cartier Foundation its name — also grew up on the scene. He and his friends pooled money to host semi-legal “surprise parties,” jiving to James Brown, Otis Redding and the Beatles, as well as salsa and European music. “The nights were magnificent,” he said in an interview. “It was a time without worries. Everybody was happy.”

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Sidibé’s night-life photos don’t just show the dance floor — they also show the painstaking preparations for a night out.

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Malick Sidibé/The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

For a roving photographer like Sidibé, keeping up with this hectic night life wasn’t easy: After long days at the studio, he spent much of the 1960s and early ’70s racing between these parties, sometimes as many as four a night. He would announce his arrival by setting off a flash gun, then take hundreds of snaps of people cavorting, before heading back to the studio to develop negatives, then put prints on display for sale.

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“Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club),” taken on Christmas Eve 1963, is probably Sidibé’s most famous photograph.

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Malick Sidibé/Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

One of Sidibé’s photographs has become deservedly famous: “Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club)” from 1963. It portrays a brother and sister dancing, he in a tie and flawless safari suit, she barefoot but in a full-skirted dress. The pair are concentrating hard, but have radiant half-smiles. “You can see from their eyes how happy they were,” Mr. Magnin said. “All these pictures are full of tenderness, full of love.”

Yet there is more to Sidibé’s photographs than straightforward joy, Mr. Diawara emphasized: They…

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