Long before the era of the selfie, Samuel Fosso disguised himself, transformed and photographed himself in remarkable scenes of relevance and humor. When he opened his photo studio in Bangui (Central Africa) in 1972, Samuel was just 13 years old. Often the working day is prolonged in long sessions where the decor, the accessories, the poses change.
Only he, both photographer and model, remains and recomposes with delight the iconographic codes drawn from fashion magazines. This first series entitled 70’S Lifestyle marks the beginning of a long work where the self-portrait becomes the essential vector of its successive variations.
Give of yourself
Born with a physical disability, Samuel Fosso experienced a tossed childhood from Cameroon to the Central African Republic, passing through Nigeria, between wars and exile in a central Africa in turmoil. The artist will draw from these difficult first years and from an eventful family history, enough to build a work.
Putting his body at the service of art is not an empty word for the polymorphic artist. With him, the self-portrait becomes a performance, an incarnation. With an economy of means, Fosso develops an infinite field of artistic exploration, interpreting indifferently female or male characters, famous or not. In 1997, invited for the fiftieth anniversary of the Tati stores in Paris with other photographers from the African continent such as Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, he played with the codes of representation and enthusiastically questioned the stereotypical gaze of the Western world on Africa. The Liberated American Woman of the 1970s Where The Chief (who sold Africa to the colonists) become icons of Fosso’s critical photography, sparkling with color and intelligence.
All is not however that exuberance and lightness in the world of the photographer. With My Grandfather’s Dream when he focuses on his roots, he pays strong homage to his grandfather, a traditional Igbo doctor who was able to relieve his disability where modern medicine failed. When he appears in the series memory of a friend, he is more serious, all in sobriety up to nudity to evoke the ordeal of his friend Tala assassinated by the Central African militia in 1997.
With African Spirits, Fosso returned in 2008 to the sobriety of black and white to embody the political, sporting and artistic icons of his pantheon. Martin Luther King rubs shoulders with Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela and Miles Davis. The poses are perfect, having fun with the representational mannerisms of those who “exist through the image”. We get caught up in the recognition game; not so simple, when the artist mischievously omitted to name the personalities represented, throwing trouble on the common base of our culture.
The political dimension of his work takes on a more current scope when, in 2013, he reproduces, in the colors of Chinese propaganda of the 1950s, his Emperor of Africa in the guise of a Mao Zedong shining on Africa today. Seizing, again in imposing formats, the appropriate and precise gestures of papal holiness, he questions the disappointed hope of an African pope, here again the artist renews himself and seduces.
In the last space offered by the European House of Photography is a part of the work entitled SIXSIXSIX : 160 Polaroids are lined up in two rows where the flesh of the artist’s tightly framed face merges with the earth-colored background in a hypnotic quasi-monochrome. Each image corresponds to an emotional state, sometimes almost imperceptible, whose obsessive repetition strives to capture elusive feelings. The work of maturity no doubt which is expressed, fascinating, in a monumental stripping.
Between the intimate and the great story, the art of Samuel Fosso is forged, always with a keen awareness of our world. According to the series and beyond the emotions, the photographer lays the groundwork for an acerbic reflection on our history and our culture. The exhibition, whose great merit is to bring together all of these series, takes the measure of his work, reflecting the volume and depth of his work.
Landmarks. A life in the lens
– 1962: born in Kumba, Cameroon, then raised in Nigeria. Samuel Fosso fled the civil war in Biafra and moved in with his uncle in Bangui, in the Central African Republic.
– 1975: opening of his photo studio at the age of 13. He experiments with his first self-portraits.
– 1994: first exhibition at the African Photography Encounters in Bamako, Mali. Beginning of its international recognition.
– 1997: first exhibition in France for Tati’s 50th birthday.
– 2020: publication of the monographic work self-portrait (Éd. Steidl, 2021 for the French edition).
– Samuel Fosso now shares his life between France and Nigeria.