“[T]o me there is one unifying theme behind [my series]—and that is the question of power.... I want to show the Black man’s relationship to the power that oppresses him.”
One of Central Africa’s leading contemporary artists, photographer Samuel Fosso forged his path as an artist almost accidentally, an unexpected result of his work as a commercial portrait photographer. His experience in this field eventually inspired the conceptual self-portraiture for which he is known, a body of work through which he engages with the history of studio-based photography in Africa while forging a distinct aesthetic that celebrates and challenges concepts of Pan-African identity.
At the age of 13, Fosso set up a commercial studio in Bangui, in the Central African Republic (CAR). He had grown up in Biafra, a territory in southeastern Nigeria that, following years of internal ethnic struggles, declared its independence in 1967. The bitter civil war that ensued incited Fosso to flee to the CAR, where an uncle took him in.
Having established a successful studio business, Fosso found that his clients preferred a quick turnaround on their portraits. This demand provided him with a chance entry into art making: in order to use up leftover film and process it for printing at the end of the day, he began taking pictures of himself, sending these to family back in Nigeria. His early self-portraits demonstrate an intrinsic interest in studied self-presentation: against makeshift backdrops, he experiments confidently with props, poses, and costumes. Defying dictatorial statutes banning bell bottoms and platform boots, he often defiantly luxuriates in these flamboyant 1970s fashions.
Inspired in part by his Igbo heritage and Igbo performance traditions of masquerade and body art, Fosso eventually forged a more explicitly theatrical style of self-portraiture. The possibilities inherent in his earlier photographic experiments are borne out in series such as Tati (1997), in which he stages colorful, satirical tableaux of characters such as a tribal chief and a liberated 1970s woman, and African Spirits (2008), in which he poses as celebrated cultural figures and leaders in the Civil Rights and African independence movements, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Haile Selassie. In these and other works, Fosso touches on the Igbo masquerade concept of the living-dead, in which the spirits of forebears remain close to the living.
Fosso’s work also reveals his deep interest in the circulation of images. The poses and costumes in African Spirits are drawn from well-known photographs such as Magnum photographer Eve Arnold’s quietly powerful portrait of Malcolm X (1961). Fosso’s astute understanding of the power that images accumulate through dissemination guides his approach, both in his meticulous restaging of famous portraits and in his playful evocation and deconstruction of stereotypes via his invented portraits.
Note: Opening quote is from Samuel Fosso and Okwui Enwezor, “The Moment When Samuel Fosso Knew He Was an Artist.” Aperture, August 13, 2020. https://aperture.org/interviews/samuel-fosso-okwui-enwezor-interview/.
Rebecca Lowery, art historian, 2018