It is impossible to talk about Samuel Fosso without recalling the joy that, in December 1994, spread through the Bamako Encounters, an African biennial of photography hosting Fosso’s first exhibition, as well as those of many other photographers from the continent. Why joy, rather than amazement? Because the two artistic directors of this biennial, Françoise Huguier and Bernard Descamps, had been talking about, and keeping an eye on, Africa’s visual originality for some time. Of course, as journalists invited to appreciate the results of their research, in Mali, Guinea, and Madagascar, we were thrilled and stunned. Why stunned? Because Bamako, the birthplace of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, opened a whole new world and introduced us to a “tradition of images,” as Jacques Brunel put it in Le Monde. In his review for Libération, Édouard Waintrop, a film-loving globetrotter, took note of Samuel Fosso’s self-portraits, “and his consummate art of staging.” Édouard pointed out how Samuel Fosso “sometimes complemented his photos with texts, sayings, or maxims (‘This is where I lived a good life,’ ‘Let’s look into the future because the past is there to transform us’), [proving] ‘an inventiveness worthy of shop-sign painters who bring fame to Equatorial Africa.’ ”
A year passed, and in the fall of 1995, I saw Samuel Fosso again. His self-portraits had been exhibited in Paris, at the Centre National de la Photographie. I wanted to know a little more about this young “loner,” born on January 2, 1962 in Kumba, Cameroon. During the Biafra War, as a member of the Ibo ethnic group he had to flee his village and take shelter in the forest to escape the Nigerian army. The rest of his story, which steered him toward photography and brought him renown for his singularity, both behind the camera and facing it, unfolded in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Fosso opened his studio, the Studio National, on September 14, 1975, three and a half years after arriving in the country. When Bernard Descamps met him there in February 1994, the establishment had changed names several times (Studio Gentil in 1977; Studio Hobereau in 1979; Studio Convenance in 1982; to become, still in 1982, Studio Photo Convenance). As the French photographer describes it, it was “a classic studio, with large washbowls used as reflectors and a painted, rather outdated backdrop representing a cityscape and occasionally used for portraits. I later learned that a friend of Samuel’s had been inspired by a postcard he had received from Romania… The decor, in fact, was a view of Bucharest!” What interested Descamps, who was preparing the first edition of the Bamako Encounters, was Samuel Fosso’s personal work. Fosso showed him some self-portraits he had done over the past twenty years “to finish off his customers’ film rolls.” It is these self-portraits that made him famous in Bamako. And of course, there is also his distinctive style: a mixture of simplicity and self-celebration: “Everyone feels beautiful, but I know that I am beautiful.” One might say, juvenilia, yet full of know-how and artistic intuition. As Descamps said, “He’s a lovely guy, incredibly sophisticated.”
This African Candide is not content to reproduce himself, or to imitate American singers; as he would later explain, “I use my body to entertain, to say that everyone can do whatever they want. The world was not built to suit a single model. My grandfather would have wanted me to become a healer like him, but when he died in 1971, I was too young to take over. With photography, I can communicate my thoughts.”
Thus, literally, he became a “medium,” taking on multiple identities developed on the go while working on commission for the French department store TATI in the fall of 1997. A jubilant exercise. While his elders, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, captured anonymous people in a tent studio set up near the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station in Paris, Samuel Fosso was transforming himself at will, like a character in a Wes Anderson film: here he is as a sailor, there a pirate, a soccer player, a rocker, and even a femme fatale. “His style is his own. He invented his own reflection,” concluded Malick Sidibé, amazed.
Other doubles and other tricks followed, as if Fosso wanted to finish with stereotypes once and for all: stereotypes about himself and his own ingenuity, about Africans, about postcolonial visual memory, and “those who observed us from afar … and criticized us as in colonial times.” Then came series in which he stepped back into the shadow and confronted history. In 2000, “Memories of a Friend”, was a tribute to Tala, a Senegalese friend killed by Central African soldiers. In 2003, “The Dream of My Grandfather”, commemorated Agwu Okoro, who cured him of a partial paralysis when he was four: “I am his first descendant, he adored me, he did everything for me.” In 2008, in “African Spirits”, he played Angela Davis and Martin Luther King, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela…: “I wear the lives of others, it’s not a disguise, it’s a story of misfortune and suffering. I wanted to commemorate those who fought for Black rights, those who had the courage to face the future. I did this so that their image would not be forgotten, and that they would enter the visual history of Africa through my own image.” These series, collected in a monograph published by Revue Noire and La Fábrica, are currently on display at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, right next to Fosso’s more recent SIXSIXSIX (2015–2016), an inventory of emotions in 666 large-format Polaroids.
Samuel Fosso is now a recognized artist. But, for me, he is also this young man in love with “peace and tranquility,” who posed in sunglasses and a pop outfit. It was in October 1997, in Paris, at 42, Boulevard Rochechouart. With my little Yashica, I photographed him sitting in a chair that belonged to the decor set up by the TATI stores. An indelible memory.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Samuel Fosso, Photographies, ed. Simon Najmi, Revue Noire and La Fábrica, 108 pp, €15.