Exhibition | Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts

A Transnational Artist in a Postcolonial World

The Nigerian-Cameroonian artist Samuel Fosso (born 1962) is one of the most compelling photographers working in self-portraiture today. The artist, presented in the survey exhibition Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts at Art on Hulfish, has produced self-portraits that explore Pan-African identities and the relationship of the self to imagined community, individual fantasies, and collective aspirations.

Fosso is a man uncomfortably at home in four different countries—all of which have shaped his individual identity. He was born in 1962 in Kumba, West Cameroon, to Nigerian parents. Born sick and partially paralyzed, he was taken by his mother to his grandfather, a traditional healer in Afikpo, in southeastern Nigeria, for treatment. What was supposed to be a short stay became a multiyear ordeal when the Biafra War broke out in 1967 and trapped Fosso in the conflict zone. After he lost his mother, he moved in with his grandparents, working as his grandfather’s apprentice until the war ended in 1970. Soon after, he returned to Cameroon and in 1972 relocated with an uncle to Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic.

Samuel Fosso, 70’s Lifestyle [SM 17], 1976. © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy of the artist; Jean Marc Patras, Paris; and The Walther Collection, New York / Neu-UlmIn Bangui, Fosso initially worked in his uncle’s shoemaking shop. Not enamored of that line of work, in 1975 he began an apprenticeship with a studio photographer that lasted only five months. After honing his craft as an itinerant street photographer, Fosso opened his own studio at the young age of thirteen. So unusual was his decision to strike out on his own that there was no other photographer Fosso’s age in Bangui. He was, indeed, a young man in a hurry!

From the outset, Fosso adopted the portraiture style and mode prevalent across the West African region: elaborately dressed sitters; curtained or painted backdrops often depicting fanciful urban landscapes; and the occasional signifiers of modernity, such as a radio, clock, motorcycle, or plastic flowers. Meanwhile, in addition to his daytime job of photographing clients, at night Fosso became his own subject. In theatrical self-portraits, an ode to blooming youth, we see the artist in fitted shirts, tank tops, bell-bottom pants, platform shoes, and sunglasses; occasionally, he seems to be preening in front of an absent bathroom mirror, in just his underpants. Though he might come across as a modern-day Narcissus, Fosso initially made these photographs in response to his life’s sobering reality. Far away from his grandmother in Nigeria, he sent the photographs to her as a kind of proof of life—given the hardship and illness that defined his childhood. Moreover, in the midst of oppressive living conditions in the Central African Republic under successive dictatorships, Fosso turned his studio into a zone of personal sovereignty, a space in which he could simply be himself by adopting the fashion of the stars of African highlife music and American pop culture.

Samuel Fosso, African Spirits—Angela Davis, 2008. Gelatin silver print, 101.6 × 76 cm. © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy of the artist; Jean Marc Patras, Paris; and The Walther Collection, New York / Neu-UlmAfter years away from home, Fosso traveled in 2003 to Afikpo, where he created the series Le rêve de mon grand-père (My grandfather’s dream; 2003) as a tribute to his grandfather. Using the studio as a stage, Fosso presents himself performing healing rites and staging the coming-of-age ritual that he missed while in exile. Photography here becomes a tool for spiritual and psychic restoration and for the reclamation of his ancestral heritage.

Fosso’s life and work serve as remarkable examples of a new African diaspora: individuals and communities displaced by war and civil conflict within Africa and their lifelong struggles to reconnect with their homelands. Despite currently living in Aba, a major southeastern Nigerian city, not far from his ancestral home in Afkipo, Fosso continuously confronts the problems of national identity: He is a citizen of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and France but is not a documented resident in Nigeria! How is this possible?

When Fosso left Nigeria at the end of the Biafra War, he returned to Cameroon as an undocumented, nationless immigrant. In Bangui, he acquired Cameroonian identity papers, with Fosso as his new last name. There he became a citizen of the Central African Republic and later went to Paris, where he would become a French citizen. Fosso lived between the Central African Republic and France until 2014, when a wave of deadly interreligious crises in Bangui—during which his studio was destroyed while he was in Paris—forced him to relocate to Nigeria as an alien national. Thus, while photography serves as his “passport” to travel the world, political crises took him away from his homeland and brought him nearly back.

Samuel Fosso, Black Pope, 2017. Chromogenic print, 239 × 180 cm. Private collection. © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy of the artist; Jean Marc Patras, Paris; and The Walther Collection, New York / Neu-UlmThe self-portraits on view in Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts are not all inspired by the artist’s fascinating personal story of exile and home. For Fosso, self-portraiture is also a form of masking, revelation, and self-affirmation; a theatrical event; and a performance of social commentary. In other works in the exhibition, Fosso uses makeup, dress, and gesture to transform into iconic nationalist and civil rights figures from Africa and the diaspora; reflect on Africa’s complicated encounters with European colonialism, Christianity, and a resurgent China; and engage in vigorous self-analysis.

Many of Fosso’s self-portraits speak to his concern for Africa’s colonial and postcolonial experiences. In the series ALLONZENFANS (2013) the artist appears in the guise of uniformed West African soldiers enlisted to fight for European colonial powers during the two world wars. In a powerful way, the series moves us to reflect—as does Fosso’s life story—on the impact of conflicts among global powers on the world’s powerless and vulnerable people and societies. Works such as Emperor of Africa (2013) invite us to consider the future of Sino-African engagement, defined as it is by the so-called debt-trap diplomacy in Africa, whereas the Black Pope series (2017) examines Christianity’s role in African colonization and the global influence of the Catholic Church. Fosso, dressed in convincing papal robes, stages the elusive Black pope as if to ask, “So when will such a man occupy Christianity’s most powerful office?”

Maia Julis
Class of 2023, Department of Art & Archeology, Princeton University

Iheanyi Onwuegbucha
Doctoral student, Department of Art & Archeology, Princeton University

All images used here are © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy of the artist; Jean Marc Patras, Paris; and The Walther Collection, New York / Neu-Ulm.

Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts is organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in collaboration with The Walther Collection. The exhibition is curated by Princeton University Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu with Princeton students Silma Berrada, Class of 2022; Lawrence Chamunorwa, doctoral student; Maia Julis, Class of 2023; and Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, doctoral student.

Art on Hulfish is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and Princeton University. Generous support is provided by William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; Jim and Valerie McKinney; Tom Tuttle, Class of 1988, and Mila Tuttle; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; and Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; H. Vincent Poor, Graduate School Class of 1977; and Palmer Square Management. Additional supporters for this exhibition include The Walther Family Foundation; the Humanities Council; the Lewis Center for the Arts; the Africa World Initiative; the Program in African Studies; the Department of African American Studies; and the Center for Collaborative History.