SAMUEL FOSSO: MULTIPLE GUISES FROM BANGUI.
By Nii B. Andrews.
For the last forty years Samuel Fosso has taken numerous photographs of himself.
What started out as a teenage fascination with wearing trendy 60s and 70s western clothes which he mimicked from music album covers, movie posters and magazines has morphed into an almost instantly recognisable body of work.
Fosso has dressed himself up with flamboyance – as a golfer, a pimp, an African chieftain and sometimes in gender bending roles.
The initial photos were all in black and white and it was not until 1994, that they were brought to the attention of an international audience.
Three years later, Fosso was working in color having been commissioned by a chain of French department stores for an ad campaign. This was when he became quite “extra” with costumes that were a riot of color and immersed in gender ambiguity.
Fosso, who has Igbo antecedents, moved from his birth place in Cameroon to Eastern Nigeria and then to Bangui when the Biafran War started. It was in Bangui that after an apprenticeship in photography, he opened his own studio at the age of 13.
In order to facilitate a fast delivery of client photos, he took self portraits with the unused portions of film at the end of each day’s work.
These portraits were grandly staged with props from his studio. Most of them were posted back home to his grandmother to reassure her that he was doing well.
Now, this is where some researchers have conjectured and written that his Igbo background caused him to appropriate Igbo masquerade tropes in staging his photos.
Where is the evidence that Fosso even ever saw the masquerades or if he did, whether he understood them?
And are the masquerades the only thing in Igbo culture that could possibly have influenced him?
Should we even bother to find out whether there are photographers from other ethnic groups or far flung cultures – with or without a masquerade tradition, who also produced self-portraits?
In another body of work from 2008 entitled AFRICAN SPIRITS, he poses as celebrated cultural and political personalities of African descent. They include Nkrumah, MLK and Malcom X.
Fosso stated, “This is a heritage that we must not forget. I had to pay homage to them because they have allowed us to be free, in a way, and to give them their place in history so that our children may remember what has happened in the past and what is still happening today”.
In 2015, he produced the series, SIXSIXSIX in which the body is no longer in costume and the artist is without makeup.
There were 666 unique images in total.
Fosso provides an explanation for the series, “….there is unhappiness and happiness, misfortune and good fortune. I was very inspired by these two aspects. SIXSIXSIX refers to the number of misfortune.
By that I mean in terms of what I’ve encountered in my life up to now. After my illness came the Biafra war; millions of people died, and I was fortunate to be saved. I went to the Central African Republic where I experienced the same thing during the conflicts of 2014, in which I could have died.
So, 666 is a number of misfortune and at the same time is a number of good fortune. For all that I’ve been through, God has been with me and has saved me.”
Fosso’s work is part of prestigious international museum collections and has also been featured in landmark exhibitions.