In the aftermath of the civil war in Nigeria that devastated his Igbo community, Samuel Fosso was sent in 1972 to live with an uncle who was a shoemaker in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Dissatisfied with cobbling, Fosso apprenticed with an Igbo photographer down the street. Three years after his arrival, he opened his own portrait studio. He was 13.
At the end of the workday, he would finish off a roll of black-and-white film with self-portraits for his grandmother back home, to demonstrate that despite having been a sickly child, he was in robust health. Showing off in front of the painted backdrops he used for his clients, he would put on a tank top and briefs, oversized sunglasses, a jiu-jitsu costume or fashionably fringed white pants — adopting the attire and attitudes of African and African American pop stars.
So began a lifelong project of self-portrait impersonations that has established Fosso, 60, as one of Africa’s leading photographers. His first solo American museum exhibition, “Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts,” organized by the art historian and professor Chika Okeke-Agulu at the Princeton University Art Museum, draws heavily from the holdings of the collector Artur Walther and offers a compact presentation of Fosso’s work.
He was catapulted from a career as a studio photographer in a small African city to worldwide recognition in 1994, when his self-portraits won an award in the first photography biennial in Bamako, Mali, where he was compared to Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, two acclaimed portrait artists from Bamako. “I did not know I was making art photography,” he told the curator Okwui Enwezor in Aperture. “What I did know was that I was transforming myself into what I wanted to become. I was living out a series of ideas about myself.”
In 1997, a commission in Paris by Tati, a discount-clothing department store, inspired him to step up his ambition to a higher level. To distinguish himself from Sidibé and Keïta, he worked in color, staging self-portraits in which he fully took on the roles of fictional characters: a businessman, a bourgeois woman, a rocker. In one, posing as “the liberated American woman of the 70s,” he made up his face with lipstick and eyeliner, painted his fingernails blue, and donned a brightly patterned patchwork coat, bead necklaces, a straw hat and purple stiletto heels, carrying it off with a huge dollop of feminine self-assurance.
Even more bravura is his self-presentation as “the chief who sold Africa to the colonists.” Adopting the mock-tribal costume of contemporary African dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo but in cheap ersatz versions (faux leopard skins, tourist souvenir gold jewelry, a bangle on his calf and a toe ring), Fosso, clutching a bunch of sunflowers, peers out inscrutably behind white designer shades. In a room that is covered on the floor and walls with boldly patterned fabrics, his bare feet rest on a Kuba cloth, next to a pair of red loafers that he is proudly displaying as proof of his prosperity.
In subsequent series, photographing both in color and in black and white, Fosso portrayed himself in “African Spirits” (2008) as eminent Black men (Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Haile Selassie) and in the series “ALLONZENFANS” (2013) as African soldiers in a colonial army. For “Black Pope” (2017), he dressed himself in authentic papal regalia that he obtained from Gammarelli, the pope’s official tailor in Rome. He was highlighting the fact that notwithstanding the large number of Roman Catholics in Africa (Fosso is Catholic himself), there has never been a Black pope.
Fosso’s assumption of different identities is often compared to the work of Cindy Sherman, although she did not commence her breakthrough “Film Stills” until 1977, two years after he began his self-portraiture. “Rock Star (Character Appropriation,” made by the Argentine artist David Lamelas, who photographed himself as a guitarist in 1974, comes closer to the pictures that Fosso was making when he started. In Bangui, however, he was unaware of contemporary Western artists.
Within himself he finds multitudes. His most direct treatment of the aspects of his personality was inspired by a disaster. In 2014, while he was in Paris, his studio in Bangui was looted and destroyed during civil strife. Depressed and shaken, he stayed in Paris, where in 2015 he began making “SIXSIXSIX,” a sequence of 666 Polaroid self-portraits. Eschewing costumes and makeup, he recorded different expressions on his unadorned face, explaining that he was “exorcising my own resentment in the face of this situation.” Because he was pondering why people commit evil acts, he chose the “number of the beast” that appears in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament and is associated with the Antichrist.
To make sure that his face would be positioned the same way in each photo, he obtained a chair used by the police to make mug shots. The unique series of prints is in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly — Jacques Chirac, but in this exhibition, the photos are displayed in sequence in a single-channel video installation that is placed at the end of the small show, near a selection of portraits of local citizens that Fosso made in his studio when he was beginning his career. Side by side, you see the two forces that drive his art: the well-established studio practice of West Africa and a healthy dose of self-regard.
Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts
Through Jan. 29, Princeton University Art Museum, Art on Hulfish, 11 Hulfish Street, Princeton, N.J., artmuseum.princeton.edu