The Makings of Me
Samuel Fosso's Self-portraits
Disco Kid, Malcolm X, Angela Davis-photographer Samuel Fosso of the Central African Republic slips into a wide array of roles, tapping African cultural history for his store of props. Daniel Kothenschulte on Fosso's self-portraits in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
||Glamour photography tends to be lavish. The American star photographer Peter Basch once explained that the amount of film material he shot in his portrait sessions played as negligible a role as it did in a Hollywood studio. The enormous number of pictures taken guaranteed that some of the images were bound to be successful. In Samuel Fosso's photo studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, the amount of material used played a very real role. In the 1970s, to develop an incompletely exposed role of film was to squander material, even though urgent jobs sometimes left him no other choice. And so he used the remaining film on the negatives for his own private purposes.
The young attractive man slipped into the coolest outfit he had. He posed in tight shirts, dark glasses, short pants, on platform heels and barefoot. Sometimes he looked into the camera, but more often he focused on an imaginary point in space, like a controlled dancer. It's difficult to believe that Fosso was paralyzed until he was four years old. When western medicine failed, his grandfather, a medicine man, took over the case and performed sacrificial rituals, waking him in the middle of the night and rolling him off the roof of the house. The child gradually learned to walk.
Fosso's mother in Nigeria made sure that none of his posed pictures were lost; he had sent her prints on a regular basis for the family album, which must have caused some astonishment, because Fosso's fashion style was hardly any less daring than the New York club Studio 54: an androgynous look, close to drag. In a photograph from the Deutsche Bank Collection, he presents himself in white fringed Bermuda shorts, a muscle shirt, and disco boots, while in another he is wearing nothing but hot pants and white gloves. He had never intended to publish these images; it was only in 1994, after French photographer Bernard Deschamps happened upon Fosso's work, that they reached the international art world. Fosso's works are easy to classify in a context of western self-styled staged poses; he can be situated somewhere between the early Jürgen Klauke and Cindy Sherman. Yet they were made completely autonomously-even if not entirely untouched by international art movements. Many African states had a strong youth and pop culture, at the very latest since Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 boxing championship between George Forman und Muhammad Ali that was broadcasted worldwide. The self-confidence of the man staging himself here before the camera cannot be separated from the collective feeling of cultural emergence, which today has receded into history.
Samuel Fosso clearly described the intentions behind his early self-portraits, and it was probably the same as most of his clients, as well. Probably no one who has ever turned his face to a photographer anywhere around the world has felt differently. "I wanted to show how good I look. That's what it was about."
Today, these photographs transmit far more than the admittedly justified narcissistic intent. They are historical documents of an African youth culture that was in full bloom at the time and engaged in a dialogue with international trends. Clear intimations of contemporary African American dance culture can be discerned in both the fashion and the poses.
As a child, Fosso, who was born in Cameroon in 1962 and grew up in Nigeria, fled from the Biafran war and made his way to Bangui. With the support of his brother, he was able to set himself up professionally with his own photo studio at the early age of 13. He runs his "Studio Convenance" to this day and still takes passport and wedding photos on a daily basis. No one in town knows anything about the other Samuel Fosso, the artist who has shown at the New York Guggenheim Museum and the London Tate Modern and who was part of the important Africa Remix exhibition, which was shown in many countries. People think he photographs weddings abroad as well.
And just as he himself sent photographic greetings as a teenager to his relatives abroad, migrants still visit his store with the same purpose today. They too wrap themselves in scarves, not necessarily in disco garb, but definitely in the best clothing. There's hardly a place on Earth where commercial photographers do not live from the fact that migrants send positive and often embellished greetings to their home countries. Fosso's work has a lot to do with this individual positioning within collective identities.
One of the most amazing examples of this kind of photographic self-portrayal is the portrait collection of Taliban fighters that the Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak purchased in the summer of 2001 in Kandahar's film and photo stores and published in his photography volume Taliban. Despite the strict ban on imagery, the fighters posed in magnificently colored black and white photographs. Their faces, "made up" after the fact in bright colors, come across as amazingly feminine. Just like the elaborate backgrounds, they have little to do with external reality, but all the more with the idealized reality of self-identity.
All around the world, photo studios, especially when they operate in a diaspora, play a key role in the preservation of collective identities. At the same time, however, they also continue the photographic traditions of the 19th century, when it was customary to offer the customer a choice in backgrounds and props. During a time when commercial photography and museum art photography operate in largely separated contexts, Samuel Fosso has become one of an increasingly rare species of people who are both photographers and artists. In his self-portraits, Samuel Fosso plays lavishly with the legacy of his profession. In the early years, he liked to pose in front of a black backdrop and use props that were at hand. In later, elaborately composed images such as his "African Spirits" series of 2008, Fosso slipped into historical roles like Malcolm X and Angela Davis. A key work in this later phase with its eye to the international art public is The Chief Who Sold Africa to the Colonialists (1997) from the series Tati. The tribal chief Fosso embodies proudly presides in a western-style chair with a leopard-skin cover holding a bouquet of sunflowers-a symbol of African medicine-and wearing a fashionable pair of white glasses whose thin frame recalls traditional African masks. "People think I'm Mobutu," Fosso explains in an interview. "But the image actually stands for all African chiefs that have sold their continent to the white men."
While in his earlier pictures Fosso staged himself as part of a cosmopolitan pop culture, here he poses in an Africa comprised of set pieces with dubious sentimental content. The leopard skin pattern on the chair is no longer the bounty of colonialists, but an industrially manufactured simulacrum that has become a popular replacement for a lost origin not only for tourists, but for the Africans themselves. Fosso's self-portraits treat African cultural history with playful earnestness. He arranges props, costumes, and backdrops with even more relish than in his youth; because the photographs continually reassemble fragments of cultural identity, they refer to an irrevocably lost whole. A nowhere in Africa.