PDN Photo of the Day

Reimagining Sanlé Sory’s Portrait Studio

To showcase more than 100 photos by Burkina Faso-born photographer Sanlé Sory, who is known for collaborating with his country’s musicians, the Art Institute of Chicago has transformed an exhibition space into a recreation of his portrait studio, complete with lights, painted backdrop, props, 45-rpm vinyl records and audio recordings by many artists he photographed. The portraits on display are all from the 1960s, when the country of the Republic of Upper Volta (later renamed Burkina Faso) was celebrating independence from France. This spirited installation has an equally spirited title: “Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty Country of Burkina Faso.”

Sory (also referred to as Sory Sanlé), now in his 70s, opened Volta Photo in Bobo-Dioulasso in 1960, the year the country won independence. The city was a cultural crossroads, and members of its local music scene were experimenting with a variety of musical influences, including jazz, Cuban salsa, R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll. Sory met and photographed many of the city’s musicians, and he shot album covers for Volta Jazz and other popular orchestras and bands. Patrons of his portrait studio included Fula villagers and people wearing traditional head wraps and dress, but many of his sitters wanted portraits that captured their hip style. He offered to pose them with props such as a motorcycle, a telephone, a record player and painted backdrops that showed a beach, an airplane, classical pillars or a city street. Outside his studio, Sory photographed numerous concerts and house parties. Visitors to the Art Institute can hear some of the recordings that his stylish subjects were dancing to when he photographed them.

Like the more famous Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, Sanlé captured the optimism of a brief, promising time in a cosmopolitan city. Through the 1980s, he continued to shoot portraits, weddings and baptisms.
A decade ago, he considered burning his old negatives. Then record producer Florent Mazzoleni, researching the albums he loved, met Sory and encouraged him to share his vintage work more widely. Exhibitions in Bobo-Dioulasso, Paris and London followed. His images of Volta Jazz and other bands were included in the three-disc box set Bobo Yéyé: Belle Époque in Upper Volta, which was nominated for two Grammy awards in 2017. The Art Institute’s exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, to be co-published by Steidl, may expand the audience for his portraits and the cultural experiments he documented.

Holly Stuart Hughes

“Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty
Country of Burkina Faso.”
Through August 19
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60603

Sory Sanlé: Volta Photo
Text by Attawan Byrd,
Florent Mazzoleni
120 pages | 100 photos
Steidl/Art Institute of Chicago
$45

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