AUTOPORTRAIT is the first comprehensive survey of Samuel Fosso’s photographic oeuvre — from his experimental self-portraits as a teenager in the Central African Republic to his phantasmic depictions of Angela Davis, Chairman Mao, and the future Black Pope.
This landmark monograph offers a rare insight into the artist’s perspectives on transgression and power alongside an unparalleled compilation of his photographs. The remarkable selection of images maps his life-long exploration of self-portraiture while accompanying essays and interviews reveal how his photographs pursue the mythmaking potential of the camera.
Fosso’s fixation on the photo studio as a site of fantasy and self-realization began in early childhood. Unlike other three-month-old children in Nigeria, Fosso did not have a photographic portrait commissioned. “My father did not see the need to waste money on a paralyzed child,” he explains in his conversation with the late curator and art critic, Okwui Enwezor. “So, when you ask me why I privilege my self-portraits, I believe the answer is rooted in the condition of my life, and the meaning of self- representation.”
At 13 years old, Fosso established his own photo studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. In the evenings, he would take photographs of himself to send to his grandmother in Nigeria. Using whatever unused film was leftover in the roll of 12 exposures, Fosso would record himself to reassure his relatives that he was safe, but in time, the studio would become his own personal theatre. It was in this "liberated space" that Enwezor suggests Fosso first began to play with codes of representation of gender, sexuality, masculinity, and fashion.
In the '70s, as demand shifted from black-and-white photography to color, Fosso began to playfully dramatize historical characters, drawing inspiration from “African Americans and their sense of style,” as well as popular West African singers. He wanted to replicate these styles, buying fabric from the local markets and commissioning elaborate outfits.
One of the most famous examples from this period is his iconic La femme américaine libérée des années 70 (1997). Here, the artist is presented as an anonymous female character from the American Civil Rights Movement. From a Western art-historical perspective, the work appears deliberately transgressive. The same could be said for his later, more elaborate and theatrical works, where he appears as Chairman Mao, the Black Pope, and figures from mid-20th-century Afikpo society.
Fosso suggests that his work is not about transgression, but power: “While all the series I have done can be understood by viewers as discrete and self-contained, and therefore different, to me there is one unifying theme behind all of them — and that is the question of power.”
“I am particularly interested in the role that slavery played in the history of Africa,” he explains. “I want to show the black man’s relationship to the power that oppresses him.”
Flipping through AUTOPORTRAIT, it is clear that Fosso has always been drawn to the subject of Black liberation. This is perhaps most evident in his African Spirits (2008) series, where he mines the mythic dimension of postcolonial African and Diasporic histories. At this stage in his career, he no longer interprets typological characters, but real figures of Black liberation, including Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
From his earliest black and white self-portraits from the 1970s to his most recent theatrical works, Fosso never resorts to the kinds of cliched depictions of the black body that persist in Western photography. Instead, Fosso bears witness to the immeasurable possibilities of Black identity. Enwezor once wrote that Fosso “opened the aperture that allowed the uncommon beauty of his subjects—and by extension the forceful presence of Africans — to explode beyond the visual economy of postcolonial spectatorship and into the sphere of the contemporary imagination.”
Even with non-black subjects, and one as constructed and idealized as Chairman Mao, Fosso emphasizes ambiguities while playing with the gaze of the audience. The six images in Emperor of Africa, for example, reflect key historical periods in Mao's life, inserting winking references to China’s economic involvement throughout Africa.
Such a comprehensive document of Fosso’s work shows how playfulness has functioned as a central and sustained means of exploring complex issues of postcolonial identity, from the intimate and the spectacular. Ultimately, though, AUTOPORTRAIT is a testament to Fosso's ever-inventive methods of self-construction as an African and as a black man.
AUTOPORTRAIT is available to buy from Steidl Books for 75.00 €(approximately $88).