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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa: Marli Shamir

Marli Shamir and Peul (Fula) woman, Mopti, Mali, 1970, EEPA 2013-009-0322
The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (EEPA) is pleased to share the collection of the next featured photographer in our Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa series, Marli Shamir.  Shamir (1919-2017) was an Israeli photographer known for her extensive work in Burkina Faso, the Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, and Mali, which she completed from 1966 to 1973. Her collection (EEPA 2013-009) includes 1,817 black and white negatives (35mm and 120mm), 1,519 color slides, several hundred prints, and manuscript materials. The negatives have been digitized and will available online later this year.

Bamako man mending fishing net, Mali, 1968, EEPA 2013-009-0410
Shamir was intrigued with both the peoples and architecture of the Sahel region of western and north-central Africa. Trained at the Contempora (Contempora—Lehrateliers für neue Werkkunst) (1934-1937), a school in Berlin affiliated with the Bauhaus art movement, and in Copehagen, where she studied microphotography, her photos do not just document, but artistically depict the inhabitants and architecture of the Sahel. A specialist in black and white photography, she highlighted the stark differences and contrasts in light and angles, purposely juxtaposing dramatically different shades, textures, and shapes.

Windows and shutters, Timbukto, Mali, 1967, EEPA 2013-009-0750

In 1938, Shamir's life was seriously disrupted when she was forced to immigrate from Nazi Germany to Israel, where she lived in a kibbutz for a period of time. From 1941 to 1943, she worked as a scientific photographer at the Weizmann Institute in Raichoven and then, at just 26 years of age, opened her own photography studio in 1945 in Jerusalem. She ran this successful business for several years before marrying Meir Shamir, a former Israeli diplomat and ambassador in 1953. It was while living in Africa with her husband from 1966 to 1973 that she produced her most recognized body of work.

Bambara woman painting a Bokolanfini textile, Bamako, Mali, 1969, EEPA 2013-009-1197

During Shamir’s stay in Mali, she met Pascal James Imperato, a doctor and historian of African art, with whom she collaborated on the article, “Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali” (African Arts,  1970) [1]. Shamir also exhibited her work in 1976 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in the exhibit SAHEL, which depicted the rural and urban architecture and people of Mali. The exhibition toured Europe later that same year. 

Man standing near ceramic rain pipes, Mopti, Mali, 1968,
EEPA 2013-009-0547

While most of the exhibitions of Shamir’s work have featured her photographs taken in Mali (especially in Djenne), Shamir was interested in exhibiting her images from the larger region, noting that doing so would provide the exhibit with important contextual information and add “some warm touch to it.” [Letter to Professor J. Brunet-Jailly, Director of Research at ORSTOM, October 13, 1998] [2].  This preference of inclusiveness is evident in her photographs: she took not just static shots, but also depicted the process of making art, of celebrations, of daily life; she strove to convey people’s stories.

Child by bread oven, Timbuktu, Mali, 1967-1970, EEPA 2013-009-0760
Joseph Brunet-Jailly, a French professor of economics, saw her exhibit and, deeply impressed, showed Shamir’s photographs to Albakaye Ousmane Kounta, the national poet of Mali. The images inspired Kounta to create poetry to accompany Shamir’s photographs. The resulting book, Djenne-Ferey –La terre habitee (France: Grandvaux, 2005), reflects the collaboration of the two artists and pays tribute to the people of Mali and its heritage. One of the Kounta's poems, "Les Saints" [3], alongside the accompanying image, follows:

San Friday Mosque, Mali, 1971, EEPA 2013-009-1653

Les saints

A chacun
Une couronne
Enrobée d'argile
Une caresse étirée
De la base jusqu'au sommet

A chacun deux trous de secrets 
L'un pour les voeux
Intimes qu'on murmure
L'autre pour les offrandes
Qu'on glisse dans l'ombre

The Saints

To each
A crown
Clay clad
A stretched caress
From the base to the top

To each two holes of secrets
One for the wishes
Intimate whispering
The other for offerings
Slide in the shade

From 1977 to 1981, Shamir lived in Strasbourg where she worked with a Canadian researcher to study the new style of architecture in Mali. This work is now stored at the Center of Documentation in Strasbourg. After living for a few years in Paris in the early 1990s in order to familiarize herself with new techniques in color photography, Shamir returned to Israel with her husband. Shamir continued photographing local urban scenes in her neighborhood of Baka, Jerusalem late into her life, until she passed away at the age of 98 in 2017.

Bamako man wearing blown up "Boubou" on bicycle, Mali, 1966-1971, EEPA 2013-009-0396
We hope that you enjoy Shamir’s photographs as more are posted online. Be sure and check out the finding aid for more details. The EEPA holds an additional collection (EEPA 1995-025) of prints of Shamir’s work.  You can view that catalog record here.

The EEPA is open for researchers by appointment only, Tuesday-Thursday, 10-4. Please see the EEPA website for contact information.

[1] Pascal James Imperato and Marli Shamir, "Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali",  African Arts 3, no. 2 (Summer 1970): 32-41, 80.
[2] Marli Shamir Collection, EEPA 2013-009, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
[3] Marli Shamir and Albakaye Ousmane Kounta, Djenne-Ferey –La terre habitee (France: Grandvaux, 2005), 22-23.

Eden Orelove
Photo Archivist
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art

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