Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces

5/29/2022 — 11/18/2022

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Conceptual Framework

The Walther Collection presents a retrospective exhibition of photographic works by Samuel Fosso (b. 1962), one of the most renowned contemporary African artists working today. Spanning his five-decade career, Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces revisits bodies of work that explore issues central to the contemporary art scene. The exhibition retraces a career that oscillates between personal introspection and collective narratives through major series and lesser-known works from his youth.

Since the mid-1970s, Samuel Fosso has dedicated his artistic practice to self-portraiture and performative photography, transforming his body and envisioning compelling variations of postcolonial African identities. His early studio experiments and later series created innovative imagery that questioned ethnographic views of Africa as well as the economic imperatives of studio portraiture. Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces is presented across two galleries of The Walther Collection’s White Cube, bringing together a selection of works from all the artist’s series: early studio photography from the 1970s to 1990s is exhibited in the upper gallery and later works reflecting the artist’s personal and artistic trajectory and global politics are shown in the main gallery space.

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Samuel Fosso, 70’s Lifestyle, 1975–78

Fosso’s work reflects the shifts that occurred in the history of photography in Africa when Africans began to turn the camera onto themselves and began to visualize and embody postcolonial perspectives. In 1975, at the age of thirteen, Fosso opened his Studio Photo Nationale in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. By day he photographed paying clientele, highlighting their fashion and individual styles, depicting them in sometimes exuberant poses. At night, he focused the camera on himself. Fosso’s expressive black-and-white self-portraits from the 1970s reference West African popular culture, formulating a unique and long-term photographic project that critically and playfully examines identity, sexuality, gender, and African self-representation.

Another significant theme that runs through Fosso’s oeuvre is fashion as a powerful tool for expression, transformation, and image-making. In his words, ‘clothes help me tell the character’s story and share their own emotions… but most of all the clothes help me understand them.’ Several of his series examine how self-styling and (manipulation of) the mass media have shaped the representation of social and political ideals and selves.

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Samuel Fosso, Le rocker (The Rocker), 1997, from the series "Tati"
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Samuel Fosso, La femme américaine libérée des années 70 (The LiberatedAmerican Woman of the 1970s), 1997, from the series "Tati"
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Samuel Fosso, Le golfeur (The Golf Player), 1997, from the series "Tati"

While the series Tati (1997) investigates the transformative power of fashion through satirical representation, other photo essays such as Mémoire d’un ami (2000) explore themes of memory and ritual. Reconstructing a night in 1997, when the artist’s friend and neighbor was murdered by armed militia in Bangui, Fosso reflects on global socio-political issues through his photographic performance with astonishing vulnerability.

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Samuel Fosso, "Mémoire d’un ami," 2000

For the series African Spirits (2008), Fosso reenacted historical photos of pan-African liberation and civil rights movement leaders and celebrities, examining the power of iconography. The African and African-American figures represented in the series, like Angela Davis, Malcom X or Haile Selassie, are instantly recognizable through their iconic fashion and adopted poses, their masterful utilization of self-styling imbuing them with undeniable power to create social and political impact.

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Samuel Fosso, Self-Portrait (Martin Luther King, Jr.), 2008, from the series "African Spirits"
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Samuel Fosso, Self-Portrait (Angela Davis), 2008, from the series "African Spirits"
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Samuel Fosso, Self-Portrait (Patrice Lumumba), 2008, from the series "African Spirits"

Five years later, Fosso embodies Mao Zedong in the series Emperor of Africa (2013), manifesting the relationship between style and image again in a powerful project of political portraits, while at the same time highlighting the neo-colonial relationship between China and debt-ridden African countries.

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Samuel Fosso, "Emperor of Africa," 2013
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Samuel Fosso, "Emperor of Africa," 2013
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Samuel Fosso, "Emperor of Africa," 2013

The selection of two diptychs from the series ALLONZENFANS (2013) depicts Fosso’s intervention into the fraught history of France’s relationship with its former colonies. Fosso poses as members of the military sporting uniforms from the First and Second World War, alternating between a stern-looking soldier at attention and a smiling soldier at ease, drafted for the French regiments. Like African Spirits and Emperor of Africa, ALLONZENFANS illustrates the artist’s ongoing engagement with specific episodes of Africa’s and Europe’s history.

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Samuel Fosso, "ALLONZENFANS," 2013
Allonzenfans diptych Fosso Guide
Samuel Fosso, "ALLONZENFANS," 2013

With the Black Pope (2017), Fosso confronts politics of religion between Europe and Africa, addressing the fact that, despite high populations of Roman Catholics on the continent, there has never been a pope of African heritage. While African Catholics hoped that this would be corrected during the 2013 conclave without success, Fosso’s evocative body of work created four years later, teases our imagination, and invites us to consider the improbable event of an African on the papal seat.

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Samuel Fosso, "Black Pope," 2017
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Pope 1 Fosso Guide
 

By presenting a wide spectrum of Fosso’s work, this comprehensive retrospective offers generous insight into how the artist’s practice deviates sharply from West African studio photography traditions established by Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé during the 1950s and 1960s – from his early work examining postcolonial African society’s burgeoning desires to his later conceptual work which explores the way photographs travel the world and change meaning over time. By centering himself in performative photographic processes, Fosso’s ideas transcend mere self-representation or self-reflection to encompass explorations of what Okwui Enwezor called “self-constituted theatre of postcolonial identity.” In this “theatre,” there is a manifestation of the paradox of guise and masking, where Fosso does not attempt to recreate an individual but the idea of that person as “characters in a larger human drama.”

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Samuel Fosso, Seydou Keïta, and Malick Sidibé in the department store TATI, 1998
© Bernard Descamps. Courtesy Bernard Descamps

Samuel Fosso was born in Kumba, Cameroon, in 1962 and raised in Nigeria. He fled the Biafran War as an adolescent, and in 1972 was taken in by his uncle in Bangui in the Central African Republic. After learning about photography from a neighbor, he set up his own photo studio at the age of 13.

Fosso was awarded the Afrique en Création prize in 1995 and was the recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award in 2001. His self-portraits are represented in the collections of international museums such as Tate Gallery in London, Centre Pompidou and 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 Fosso’s photographs was published by Steidl and The Walther Collection. Samuel Fosso lives and works between Nigeria and France.

Publications

On the occasion of the retrospective Samuel Fosso at MEP in 2021, Steidl has published a French edition of Autoportrait, the first comprehensive survey of Samuel Fosso’s oeuvre — originally co-published by The Walther Collection in 2020 — with essays and research by leading scholars and writers. Edited by Okwui Enwezor, it includes contributions by Quentin Bajac, Simon Baker, Yves Chatap, Elvira Dyangani Ose, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Jean Marc Patras, Terry Smith, Claire Staebler, James Thomas, and Artur Walther, as well as an in-depth conversation between Samuel Fosso and Okwui Enwezor.

SIXSIXSIX consists of 666 large-format Polaroid self-portraits, produced in an intensive process by Samuel Fosso with a small team in his Paris studio in 2015 and 2016. Shot against the same rich, colored backdrop, these striking photographs depart from Fosso’s earlier self-portraits through their understated and stripped- back approach. Fosso’s challenge was to create 666 self-portraits each with a different bodily expression, reminding us of the link between his performances and photography. The publication opens with a conversation between Fosso and curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist.

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Cover Images: "Autoportrait," 2020 and "SIXSIXSIX," 2020

About the Exhibition

Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces is a touring exhibition organized by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris) in collaboration with The Walther Collection (Neu-Ulm) and Huis Marseille (Amsterdam), with the support of Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne.

Curated by Clothilde Morette, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, and Clara Stratmann

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