SAMUEL FOSSO – A Master of Photo-Performance

Samuel Fosso has become a leading figure on the contemporary art scene, and has frequently been invited to show his work internationally in such renowned institutions such as Tate Modern in London, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His work is also represented in prestigious international private and public collections.

But despite this widespread recognition, he has not recently been the subject of a major retrospective, and never in France. The exhibition Samuel Fosso will reveal for the first time the breadth and richness of his prolific body of work, which has been exploring the potential of the photographic medium for nearly fifty years, and which continues to offer a refreshing and extremely relevant vision of the world today.

“When I work, it’s always a performance that I choose to undertake. it’s not a subject or an object; it’s one more human being. I link my body to this figure, because I want to translate its history.”

Although Samuel Fosso is part of a long African tradition of studio photography, of which Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta are the most eminent practitioners, he has also made a major contribution to reinventing this photographic genre by turning the camera on himself and transforming his photo studio into a kind of playground – a space of absolute freedom, a place for infinite possibilities in the performance of identity. Going beyond the practice of classical self-portraiture, Samuel Fosso embodies multiple characters, as a film actor might, in order to call into question both codes of representation, and the basis upon which we make judgements consciously or otherwise. His unique body of work brings photography fully into the realm of performance art, positioning him alongside such major international artists as Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura.

Fosso utilizes the body, clothing, accessories and poses as essential tools for deconstructing representations of stereotypes, in particular those related to gender identity, race and social class, and for showing multiple individualities that bypass overly simplistic categorizations. His works also explore the symbolic power of images to create icons and collective myths. His photographs bear witness to this in his very first self-portraits, produced in the 1970s, and later with the iconic series “Tati” as well as various collaborations with the world of fashion, in particular with Vogue magazine.

Fosso’s work also has an undeniable and powerful political dimension. Reflecting a history marked by post-colonialism and globalisation, the series on display tell a story about relationships the African continent has maintained with the East and West since the mid-20th century – relationships of influence and domination, but also of interdependence and resistance.

In his series “African Spirits”, “Emperor of Africa”, “Black Pope” and “ALLONZENFANS” for example, Fosso makes reference to different geographical and cultural contexts, highlighting their limits and contradictions and reflecting the legacy of a long history of populations affected by notions of diaspora, cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism.

Born in Kumba, Cameroon, in 1962 and raised in Nigeria, Samuel Fosso fled the Biafran War as a young boy, and in 1972 was taken in by an uncle in Bangui in the Central African Republic. He learned about photography thanks to a neighbour, who trained him and helped him set up his own photo studio at the age of 13.

In addition to his commercial work (passport photos, celebrations, weddings), he began making self-portraits at the age of 15. Inspired by the pop-culture magazines he managed to find in Bangui, he photographed himself in outfits that he had custom-made by local tailors.

After being discovered by French photographer Bernard Descamps, Samuel Fosso exhibited his self-portraits for the first time in 1994 at the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie (African Photography Encounters) festival in Bamako, where his work met with great success.

In 1997, he was invited to exhibit in France thanks to a commission to create new work for the fiftieth anniversary of Tati, the French department-store chain, alongside such photographers as William Klein, Dominique Issermann and Sarah Moon.

He was awarded the Afrique en Création prize in 1995, and in 2001 was the recipient of the Prince Claus Award. His self-portraits can be found in the collections of international museums such as Tate in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou and the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris. In 2017, a solo exhibition of his work was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In 2020, the monograph Autoportrait, the first comprehensive survey of Samuel Fosso’s work, was published by Steidl, with an interview between the artist and the late Okwui Enwezor, the influential art critic and curator.