“I have no pictures from my childhood . . .’’
-Samuel Fosso, "A Man of a Thousand Faces," by Leslie Camhi, NYT 2009
From the Jack Shainman Gallery fall 2003 exhibition of photographs by Samuel Fosso:
Samuel Fosso’s self-portraits, which went unseen for many years, are among the more remarkable bodies of work to come to light in recent years. Fosso’s self-portraits are immediately engaging, even disconcerting for their directness and the powerful means of individual expression to which he turns the tradition of studio portrait photography. Born in Cameroon, Samuel Fosso opened his own photography studio at the age of 13 in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, where he had moved after leaving his parents’ home in Nigeria in the wake of the Biafran War. He began making self-portraits in 1978 at the age of 16. Initially the impetus was to have images to send to his family, though in time the photos became their own justification.
Working at night when his studio was closed and inspired by photographs in magazines (which were themselves scarce in Bangui), Fosso became both photographer and model. The excitement of seeing himself dressed in the styles of the day – bell bottoms, platform shoes, oversize sunglasses or with props such as white gloves and flowers, further encouraged him. Whether striking a pose in a karate outfit, talking coolly on a telephone, or imagining the cold as he wears a ski parka in 100-degree heat of his studio, Fosso imagined a new life. The backdrop to these remarkable images of self-transportation is the post-colonial history of the Central African Republic, a scene of frequent strife. Multiple coups have torn the country apart--as did the tyrannical reign of the self-declared “Emperor” Bokassa, who was eventually deposed and convicted of both murder and cannibalism (and whose image is among those that appear on a shirt worn by Fosso in an early image). Fosso continued working throughout this period and recent years have found him working in color, on images that show Fosso as a pirate, a drag queen, and a sailor.
Though often discussed in terms of Western photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Pierre et Gilles, these comparisons are ahistorical, as are readings which assume Fosso to be homosexual. Working in isolation from the contemporary art world, Fosso’s earliest images were made without the thought of an audience. Yet Fosso, continues to engage us in this one sided dialogue, setting forth his images in order to express not only his own pride but that of a contemporary and underrepresented African sensibility. Fosso was included in “Photo Espana 2003,” Madrid, Spain, curated by Olvia María Rubio, as well as “The Short Century” traveling exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and P.S.1 in Long Island City, NY.