"Seydou Keita: Portraits." Seydou Keita, a 1950s African portrait photographer, set up shop on a street in Bamako, Mali; provided patterned backdrops and a cache of props (including mens' suits, radios, watches, a Vespa the insignia of modernism at that time); and invited people to have their pictures taken. They lined up in droves outside his stall. What he ended up with is a collection of enormously tender and highly artistic shots of handsome couples, dignified elders, and groups of girlfriends. There's a nonclinical warmth and closeness in these pictures. Artist and sitters came from the same place; they trusted and liked each other. Keita made them look grand and fashionable, like country royalty. And when you see the photographer's self-portrait you know why: He was shy, engaging, a guileless knockout. What phrases and cues must he have uttered to inspire his subjects' direct gazes and coy smiles? In a season when artists and galleries (including the William T. Wiley show downstairs) are compelled by conscience to pour out their anger and despair over the dire state of the world and its people, Keita gives us heartwarming images from a less global and more optimistic time. The large-format, drawing room-size images, sensitively printed, show the sheen on the skin, the burnished bracelets, the lively patterns and gathered flounces of the local dresses. The sheer megawatt style of the sitters in their artful poses blows you away. Even so, nothing is simple: Further research reveals the troubled history of these images. An article in the Jan. 22 issue of the New York Times "Who Owns Seydou Keita?" by Michael Rips explains how the Keita negatives were unearthed and details the wrangling between French and American galleries over their presentation and over the contested estate. To quote Rips: "When it comes to photography, authenticity is artificial." Through Nov. 4 at John Berggruen Gallery, 228 Grant (at Post), S.F. Admission is free; call 781-4629 or visit www.berggruen.com. (Lea Feinstein) Reviewed Oct. 25.
Terror? Intersection for the Arts Program Director Kevin B. Chen sorted through 1,600 responses to the call for this show to pick the 360 entries (each smaller than 8 1/2 by 11 inches) that line the gallery walls. More than 200 artists from 15 states and 20 countries submitted work, which includes photographs, prints, drawings, relief sculptures, stamps, Braille embossings, embroidery on handmade paper, Band-Aids, and found objects. Terror is everywhere, and there are as many versions of it in this high-octane show as there are contributors. Some pieces focus on private fears: not knowing the language, losing ones sanity and being institutionalized, being raped or beaten, growing old alone and dying. Others express political fears. A contact sheet of surveillance portraits highlights issues of privacy invasion and loss of civil rights. Global violence provides a subject for haunting images from Spain, Haiti, Lebanon, Uganda, and Vietnam. There is a difference between depictions of the terror you imagine and the terror you know firsthand; the evidence here proves that these artists know what theyre talking about. The fear-mongers are represented as well: Bush and company decode color alerts and cover their butt[on]s as one artist raids the sewing kit and the toy box. Artists from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, contribute sharp and memorable graphic images. The exhibition is a slide show of snapshots, its cumulative effect more personal and powerful than the evening news. What causes terror? Theres no easy answer to the question, but many works in this show are successful at evoking what it feels like to be overwhelmingly afraid. Through Nov. 11 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Lea Feinstein) Reviewed Oct. 25.
"Who's Afraid of San Francisco?" While we're busy spearheading social change, San Franciscans are also (perhaps without realizing it) manufacturing national anxiety. This exhibition peers behind the city's liberal gestalt to explore how our support for gay marriage, the anti-war movement, and medical marijuana, as well as the supposedly looming "Big One" earthquake, inform the rest of the country's perceptions and fears about the Bay Area. The 20 featured artists include Enrique Chagoya, who weds pre-Columbian symbolism to American pop culture in massive works like Adventures of a Minimalist Cannibal, a guerrilla take on Ellsworth Kelly's celebrated color paintings that looks wryly upon the immigration debate. Frederick Loomis' prophetic, William Blake-esque pencil drawings delve into Judeo-Christianity and Space Age mysticism; Rodney Ewing's celebratory painting A Change Is Gonna Come envisions social change as a giant tsunami that, despite all those harbingers of dread, carries the fearless safely to shore. Through Nov. 16 at Frey Norris Gallery, 456 Geary (at Taylor), S.F. Admission is free; call 346-7812 or visit www.freynorris.com. (Nirmala Nataraj) Reviewed Oct. 4.