At the tender age of thirteen, Fosso launched a commercial portrait photography studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. After-hours, he took advantage of leftover exposures on rolls of film used for commissions to pose playfully in fashionable clothes, reveling in self-transformation. Since his emergence on the global contemporary art scene in the 1990s, Fosso has continued to perform for his own camera, but his work has increasingly engaged with the cultural mythologies embodied in recognizable figures and social types.
In his African Spirits series, from 2008, Fosso assumed the personas of heroes of the African independence and American civil rights movements: “I wear the lives of others,” he has said. His sources for these masquerades were photographs whose circulation in the mass media has made them recognizable as icons in themselves, and he recreated them with astonishing mimicry. Fosso’s portrayal of the American activist and scholar Angela Davis amalgamates several famous pictures of her, including photographs from an FBI Wanted poster, the covers of Life magazine and her autobiography, and media deployed in the Free Angela Davis campaign. The larger-than-life picture produces a kind of cognitive flicker effect in which recognition of the source imagery collides with awareness of Fosso’s virtuosic performance, which activates these images from the past to amplify their power in the present.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
In his series African Spirits, the photographer Samuel Fosso assumes the guises of political, intellectual, and cultural figures from Africa and the African diaspora. In large-scale, meticulous formal portraits, Fosso dons the distinctive garb and characteristics of his subjects, recognizable from their widely disseminated photographic likenesses. These include the impeccable afro of American activist and educator Angela Davis and the browline spectacles of Patrice Lumumba, who was imprisoned and then executed shortly after becoming the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo after it gained independence from Belgium.
Fosso opened a commercial portrait studio at the age of thirteen in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, where he had settled after fleeing the Biafran War in Nigeria. He began taking selfportraits, in which he modeled the styles of the day, to send home to his grandmother in Nigeria. His embrace of costuming also refers to his Igbo heritage, especially seasonal masquerades that include exuberant performances with vibrant masks and garments, providing entertainment and linking the living with their ancestors. Fosso's African Spirits, made in 2008, likewise revive the energies of these groundbreaking forebears.
Gallery label from Unfinished Conversations, March 19-July 30, 2017.