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When I was young, Africa and its people were represented to me through two distinct sets of images. The first, delivered by National Geographic and other anthropological sources, were the cliched photographs of tribesmen gripping spears in their hands and bare-breasted woman balancing baskets on their heads. The second sort of pictures I saw, these from Oxfam and other international aid organizations, were of dirty and undernourished children, abdomens distended from malnutrition, a terrible pleading in their young eyes. These images, taken by and for Westerners, fixed themselves so firmly in my memory that they remain there to this day.

I don’t believe I ever saw a collection of photographs taken by and for Africans until this past weekend, when I visited the exhibition “Joy of Life — Two Photographers from Africa: J. D’Okhai Ojeikere and Malick Sidibe.” The show comprises some 60 silver-gelatin prints and is now showing at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.

These elder West African photographers are roughly the same age: Ojeikere was born in 1930 in Nigeria, and Sidibe was born in 1935 in French Sudan, now Mali. The pictures shown here are all black and white, taken in the 1960s and ’70s. Both men still live and work in their home countries. There, the similarity ends.

Ojeikere’s best-known body of work is “Hair Style,” a series of more than 1,000 pictures of traditional African hairstyles. There are 30 new prints (made in 2000) from “Hair Style” on display in the Hara’s spacious first-floor gallery. The pictures are mostly 60 × 50 cm, with several almost twice that size.

There once were hundreds of distinct ethnic groups in Nigeria, each with its own language and traditions. Hairstyles were an integral part of local culture. Hair artists would spend hours creating special styles for ceremonial occasions — a wedding, a woman’s coming of age, and so on, which reflected both the woman’s social status and the stylist’s degree of skill.

Over the last few generations, local customs such as hair art have gradually been replaced by a pan-Nigerian culture. Ojeikere began his “Hair Styles” series in 1968 to document and preserve hair art for posterity.

The high-resolution pictures here include both on-site and studio shots. The frame is filled with a glistening image of the back of the head, this against a plain, usually white background. The jet-black hair is pulled, wound and bound into intricate sculptural forms. The “Roundabout,” for example, is a swirling crown, the “Ito Lozi” is a spiderlike creation, and the “Ceremonial Suku” sees white beads woven in and falling alongside long strands of hair. It astounds that styles that would be regarded as avant-garde in the West today are, in fact, centuries old.

We see a very different style of photography from Sidibe, who pointed his lens at contemporary, mostly Western-influenced, youth culture in Mali during the same period. There are 30 Sidibe prints on the Hara’s second floor galleries.

After studying to become a goldsmith, the artistically inclined Sidibe took a job at French photographer Gerard Guillet’s Bamako City photoshop in 1955. He bought his first camera, a 35 mm, soon afterward and by 1958 he had set up his own Studio Malick in the center of the capital. The shop became a favorite hangout for Mali hipsters, and Sidibe, camera always in hand, became a trusted member of their clubbing entourage.

These are excellent prints — and what fun they are, too! An up-close and personal documentary of young guys and girls dancing the night away in ad hoc discotheques, frolicking through the midnight streets, then washing the exhaustion from their sweaty bodies in the Niger River at sunup.

These kids are cool. With their sports coats, bell-bottom pants and big dark sunglasses, they embraced the look and re-created the scene they knew from magazine and movie glimpses of Detroit and Havana (the socialist government in Mali preferred the latter as a role model).

To be sure, Sidibe’s work is more snapshot aesthetic than fine-art photography, but then he does have a good eye for composition — wide-angle lenses and close proximity to subject capture the cheerful vibe and invite the viewer into the scene. In short, Sidibe was positioned to record something extraordinary, and he did a great job of it.

I left this show suffused in a warm glow. Especially, the Sidibe pictures stayed with me. Of course, these were likely privileged kids, but don’t we often see the privileged in art, and in film and magazines? What mattered more to me than a sociopolitical analysis of Sidibe’s work was its challenge to the Western media image of Africa as a place of abject poverty, and of Africans as miserable, an image that now seems to me both narrow and dim.

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