Critiquing the Trappings of Power – the work of Samuel Fosso

Jo Manby has taken a break from reviewing books to find out about self-portrait artist Samuel Fosso.

On a recent city break in Paris, we came across the privately run Galerie Jean Marc Patras. It was a cold February morning in the Marais – an area known for its arts and culture – just down the way from the Picasso Museum. In the windows of the gallery were two imposing works from Samuel Fosso’s Emperor of Africa series. These showed the artist gazing into an indeterminate, glorious distance, his face made up to represent the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, his figure dressed in Mao Zedong’s uniform-styled outfits.

Samuel Fosso Autoportrait, “Emperor of Africa” series 2013
© Samuel Fosso
Courtesy Jean Marc Patras / Paris

The sight stopped us in our tracks and we went in to find out more. There is something incredibly powerful in these images. The persona they present the viewer with is mysterious, ambiguous, yet undeniably powerful. The head and torso occupy 90% of the photograph and there’s no ‘unseeing’ the image once it’s caught your eye. The works provoked a lot of questions in us, which this post attempts to address.

In terms of race relations, why was a Black African artist disguising himself as a Chinese communist leader? Did the fact of his race ramp up the impact of the images? Or was race not the issue here, but rather a critique of politics and power per se? What was Fosso saying about global politics? What was he critiquing? I called this post ‘critiquing the trappings of power’ because it seems that he is interested in the imagery and the symbols that accompany public figures – the messages implicit in the outfits they wear, the backgrounds they choose to be photographed, or ‘seen’, against, the accoutrements they surround themselves with. He seems to be asking how these people become more than a sum of their parts. Where is their power actually generated?

In a previous post we looked at the book Black Tommies, in which historian Ray Costello painstakingly researched the lives and times of Black soldiers living or domiciled in the UK. Costello’s research was a process of rescuing these soldiers from historical invisibility and anonymity. By contrast, Fosso has devoted his career to imitating important historical figures; his work is not about overturning invisibility or anonymity. Rather, he is about weaving his way in and out of the history of power relations, emerging across the decades under innumerable disguises. He takes on the visual outward appearance of these figures, but just behind the mask you can sense Fosso himself, having a great time and laughing aloud at the joyful subversion of it all.

Self-portraiture, by definition, is about identity. By subsuming his identity and dressing up in these ‘trappings’, Fosso can channel a kind of contraflow of power – a subversive undertow that threatens to undermine the absolute power of the despot, or, in previous work such as his Tati series, unpack consumerism before our very eyes. So those questions…

Who is Samuel Fosso?

Samuel Fosso is one of the most renowned artists working in Africa today. He was born in 1962, in Kumba, Cameroon, near the border with Biafra in Nigeria. He moved from Nigeria to Bangui in the Central African Republic in 1972 to escape the Biafran War (Nigerian Civil War). He has subsequently become a photographer and artist of international repute.

Samuel Fosso Autoportrait, 70’s series
© Samuel Fosso
Courtesy Jean Marc Patras / Paris

How did his career begin?
Fosso worked as an assistant photographer from the age of 12. A year later, he was already running his own business – ‘Studio Photo Nationale’ – a commercial portrait photography studio. To use up ends of film, and the spare time he had between shoots and after work, he would dress up in fashionable outfits and deck himself out with props to take photographs of himself. His attitude was that he wanted to show off how good he looked. He sent the photos back to his mother in Nigeria. Eventually the creation of self-portraits became an end in itself.

When did his career take off?
He began to exhibit and win prizes, starting in 1994 with the first African Photography Encounters in Mali, an important African photography festival and in 1995 with the Prix Afrique en Creation in Paris. He was awarded first prize for photography at Dak’Art, the Biennale de L’Art Africain Contemporain in Dakar, Sénégal in 2000 and the Dutch Prince Claus Award in 2001. More recently he won the Lagos Photo Award for Excellence in Photography in 2014. Fosso’s work is owned by Tate London, Centre Pompidou Paris, Deutsche Bank Frankfurt, International Center for Photography New York, among many other collections.

What is he known for?
The basis of Fosso’s work is the self-portrait, but wearing different guises. His body of work is made up of series of powerful and transformative photographic images. These have included the 1970s monochrome series (see above) where he appears as fashionable musicians and doyens of West African youth culture, exploring gender, sexuality and African self-representation. Later, the satirical Tati series (1997) of colour photographs for a Parisian department store, critiquing colonialism and consumerist culture. In 2008 he created the historic Black icons series, African Spirits, celebrating the Civil Rights era and the time of African independence – transforming himself into Halie Salassie, Martin Luther King and Angela Davis, among many others.

Samuel Fosso Autoportrait, “African Spirits Series” 2008
© Samuel Fosso
Courtesy Jean Marc Patras / Paris

What is he doing now?
Fosso’s latest body of auto-portraits is the Emperor of Africa series (2013). Here he examines political agendas and cultural arenas by imitating Mao Zedong in a series of visually stunning photographs. There is a fine line between the straight-faced insouciance with which Fosso clothes himself in the identity of an ‘other’ and the revolutionary subtext implicit in these magisterial images.

Where can I see his work?
Fosso’s work is due to be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London 24 June – 24 September 2017.

Why is his work important?
Identity; status; questioning gender, race, sexuality; critiquing colonialism, consumerism, fashion; reanimating historic figures; making us think about powerful players on the global political scene from a new perspective; provoking questions about power relations, oppressive regimes, regime change…

What will his legacy be?
Each photograph has a power and an intensity of its own. The focus is vivid and pin-sharp. The impact of each body of images is also powerful and immediate. And together, the prolific output of his life’s work will occupy a place of undeniable importance in the history of international art.

Further reading and references
Article in Aperture, Samuel Fosso: Emperor of Africa, A master of theatrical self-portraiture turns toward China by Olu Oguibe
Interview by Jon Henley in The Guardian
Press information from the Walther Collection
Article in The New Yorker, The Spirits of Samuel Fosso by Siobhan Bohnacker

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