Colour Chrome

Malian photographer Malick Sidibé has been enormously influential in documenting the country's life and culture since Mali's independence in 1960. We find out how Multistory's design of the Sidibé exhibition at Somerset house reflects his work and the Mali he celebrated. 

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Backdrop for Darkroom-curated shop at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House

Design studio Multistorey has occupied an important place in the graphic design culture of the UK since it was set up by founders Rhonda Drakeford and Harry Woodrow in 1997. It has been a source of fresh, intelligent graphic design that helped define the innovative edge of the independent design movement in the last two decades. The pair’s work has blossomed in different directions in recent years but occasionally the dream team reunites to work on a project together. This year, an exhibition of work by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé at Somerset house in London has provided the stage for one such collaboration.

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Exhibition design by Multistorey at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House

It’s great to see a new project from Multistorey – what was it about this exhibition that inspired you to reform?

HW– Well, Multistorey has never gone away, Rhonda and I stopped working together full-time in late 2009, when she and Lulu launched Darkroom, and since then it’s been the platform for my solo and collaborative design and creative direction work (alongside my work as an artist). We have rekindled the professional partnership a few times since, for exhibition and retail design projects, and it’s always a pleasure.

Separately, we’d both been talking to Claire Catterall [Director of Exhibitions and Learning] at Somerset House, she’s an old friend and longstanding champion of Multistorey, and she actually suggested that we work together on the Malick Sidibé exhibition, as it seemed a perfect project for us, what with Rhonda’s huge obsession with much African visual culture. Also, more broadly speaking, as I'm now based in Stockholm and Rhonda in London, it's perfect for Multistorey to have a foot in each city. 

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Exhibition design by Multistorey at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House

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Exhibition design by Multistorey at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House

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Darkroom-curated shop at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House

What informed the approach you took to the typography for the exhibition identity?

HW– From everything I’ve read about Bamako post-independence, music was (and still is) a hugely important part of life, and records were precious cultural signifiers, people would carry them round as badges of allegiance and taste. So there was a desire to feel somewhat like a record cover from some point in the wide period that the pictures were shot in. But saying that, it was pretty intuitive, as is most of what we/I do — we’re definitely anti-moodboard and explicit visual homage.

Could you describe your thinking behind the use of colour in the exhibition identity and book?

HW– All of Sidibé’s prints are black-and-white, so there’s a tendency with curators and designers to be a bit too precious about them and get all elegant and monochrome and boring. But if you think about what Mali in the 60s and 70s actually looked like, and what the subjects of the photographs were wearing, it would have been eye-wateringly colourful. So the use of strong colour was vital to us, to evoke something of the joy and passion for life that the photographs capture so effortlessly. You could say that about the typography as well, actually.

RD– Our plans for the exhibition originally included a flooring concept and painted-wall treatments to create a more immersive environment — unfortunately due to last minute budget issues this didn’t happen. The shop was a place we could explore these ideas further but in reverse, where the shop fit is monochrome and the products presented are mostly very colourful.

There’s a Darkroom-curated shop attached to the exhibition - how does the show tie in to the creative impetus behind Darkroom?

RD– There is a small connection with Darkroom to Malick’s work because I bought a book about his work from the wonderful, erstwhile Steidl bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street back in 2009 when I was down there looking at what became our original store premises. It felt quite poignant at the time because of the name ‘Darkroom', and how we metaphorically wanted it to be a place where new talent could be developed… The thinking behind the shop-fit was mainly a comment on how, in his famous studio shots, the edges of the curtain backdrops and flooring were always visible. I liked how this feels like an attempt to be quite formal, but that the looseness of crop is part of the charm and perhaps why the subjects themselves could feel at ease whilst being photographed.

The hand-painted backdrops and furniture are again a comment on Malick’s work, and one portrait in particular of two young boys, one with a cushion stuffed up his jumper and the other with finger-painted lines on his body — it’s pure joy. The products curated are from or inspired by Mali, Africa and the work of Sidibé. The shop is part of the new business model of temporary spaces for Darkroom that are site-specific and respond to a brief or an environment.

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Darkroom-curated shop at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House

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Darkroom-curated shop at 'The Eye of Modern Mali: Malick Sidibé', Somerset House