“Would You Please Keep Looking, Please?”: Samuel Fosso at the Walther Collection
Samuel Fosso at the Walther Collection
June 9, 2013 through May 17, 2015
526 West 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 352 0683
“This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education.” -Elaine Scarry, “On Beauty and Being Just”
When photography was introduced into Africa in the mid-1800s, almost immediately after it had been invented in Europe, many photographic studios proliferated across the continent. Colonial fascination and curiosity established portrait photography as one of the major means not only for the European exploration and imagination of Africa, but also for creating typological and pictorial tropes of its people. When thinking about African Photography historically, from a Western perspective and in terms of an image-based creation of identity, those early ethnographic images were later joined and eventually questioned by practices such as war- and so-called documentary photography. The problem embedded within this visual archive and the perceptional expectations it can provoke, lies not in the fact that it is false or inadequate, but that it is fragmentary and exclusive. And in being so, this ‘Eurocentric’ archive prevails over the counter-archive of aesthetically rich and complex images African photographers have been producing since the late 19th century.
Samuel Fosso, born in Cameroon in 1962, is a photographer who challenges various visions of African identity through the means of self-portraiture. Since the mid-1970s, Fosso has been reflecting and commenting on African and Afro-American topics and tropes prevalent in global visual culture. His exhibition of 39 photographs currently on view at The Walther Collection provides a selective, yet thorough, survey of his early commercial and personal work, as well as his more recent, explicitly iconographic series, all of which are connected through Fosso’s almost unbelievable capacity of transforming his body through costume and performance. After fleeing the late-1960s civil war in Nigeria, Fosso ran a photo studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. While taking pictures for paying clients during the day (some of which are exhibited in library), he turned the camera on himself at night. His earliest works are represented by a series of six black-and-white photographs capturing him in thoughtfully elaborated poses and styles, which were inspired by images of celebrities, such as the Nigerian musician Prince Nico Mbarga and James Brown. These silent, almost contemplative pictures not only transmit a teenager’s pleasure in showing his lithe body in tight shirts and bellbottoms, but also allude to the transformative power that studio photography had assumed during the CAR’s dictatorial rule by Jean-Bédel Bokassa. During this time, citizens’ social and cultural life was restricted just as much as their relationships with their bodies, which were considered sacred and therefore not supposed to be exhibited or exalted. Fosso’s photographic work is not only an escape or modality to embrace the beautiful, but an artistic means providing the capacity to heal and reinvent oneself, to treat the roots of suffering, instead of anesthetically masking their symptoms.
A more satirical and colorful approach is found in Fosso’s “Tati” series, named after the Parisian department store — located in the neighborhood of Barbès, where many immigrant communites from Africa live — which invited the photographer to create the series in 1997. While exploring himself through different identities, Fosso assumed stereotypical characters such as the tribal chief or the “liberated” African-American woman. Le chef qui a vendu l’Afrique aux colons (1997) refers back to ethnographic pictorial tropes, promoted by early colonial studio photography, but is simultaneously a critical, even mocking comment on iconographic self-staging of African chiefs. Seated in front of multiple panels of printed fabric (a studio setting, of course) “le chef,” alias Fosso, is dressed in a fake leopard pelt, covered with gold chains and wearing narrow white shades, while clutching a bunch of sunflowers in his hands. In a 2004 interview, Fosso said, “I think that also very colorful, apparently happy photographs can express anger and indignation. […] We have this ugly history of lacking respect for our own people, a history from which we are still unable to escape with many of the new politicians.” The “Tati” series consequently presents not only a photographic mode suggesting the need of self-reflection, but also an intelligent strategy of merging archival and political, African and Western imagery of Africa without being didactic. Yet another notion of healing and pain reappears in a more literal sense within two series from the early 2000s. “Le rève de mon grandpère” (2003) is a reenactment of and homage to Fosso’s grandfather, a chief and healer, who cured Fosso of a paralysis he suffered as a child. The highly saturated color photographs emphasize Fosso’s facial expressions and thereby counteract his physical presence captured in the two black-and-white images of the other series, “Mémoire d’un ami” (2000). As opposed to most of his other works, this series was not staged in a clearly discernable studio, but in the privacy of a bedroom, deprived of any special scenery. Instead of performing an appropriated character, it is now Fosso himself who poses for the camera. His body is captured from the back, naked and almost naked, as if trying to escape and not inviting the photographic lens. The delicate balance in posturing exposes Fosso’s usually so-metamorphic features as lonely and vulnerable — even more so because of the carefully scattered lighting, that simultaneously emphasizes and blurs the contours of his body. In fact, these grainy images recall the traumatic experience of loss, anger and helplessness, when an acquaintance of Fosso was burglarized in his neighboring apartment and the photographer could not come in time to help him.
Fosso is not a photographer who declares himself as explicitly political, informative or educational. Instead he wants to speak about what he knows, what concerns him and about what he feels morally. This artistic belief is also found in what is perhaps Fosso’s most important series, entitled “African Spirits” (2008), in which he embodies iconic figures from the African Independence and American Civil Rights movements, ranging from Angela Davis to Haïlé Sėlassié, Patrice Lumumba to Muhammad Ali. Drawn from magazines and newspapers, these figures are not only symbols of postcolonial freedom, but also images that have been republished in different contexts and for new ideas. They are part of a visual archive, a collective memory that is not fixed or finished, but subject to change. Fosso’s self-portraits are images that oscillate between documents and appropriations, imagination and performance, challenging Western, as well as Eastern iconographies and modes of creating identities. Instead of plainspoken obviousness, he carefully dissects and reassembles photographic tropes, and thereby re-directs and — locates our perceptive habits and assumptions. In his most recent series, entitled “The Emperor of Africa” (2013), for example, Fosso explores the propaganda imagery of Mao Tse-tung, while implicitly alluding to China’s more and more prominent economic presence in Africa. What is so satisfying about his photographs is not only that they are beautiful and smart, but that they reveal the deep cultural and visual thinking that created them, without losing a sense of humor and satire.