Born in Kumba in Cameroon and based in Bangui in the Central African Republic, Fosso is one Africa's most eminent photographers. A year after his work was discovered at the first edition of the Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine photography festival in Mali in 1994, he won the Afrique en création prize. His work has been compared to that of Cindy Sherman. Indeed, when Fosso, 46, discovered Sherman’s work in 1996 at Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, he was surprised by the similarities in their staged self-portraiture that rely on the photographer being both an actor and a director.
Formally, his work has been compared to that of the great Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Fosso even chose to reinvent himself as Keita for one of the self-portraits in his African Spirits series.
Fosso invested a significant amount of research into the realisation of each carefully staged image in African Spirits. Every one of them is based on a photograph that Fosso has faithfully reinterpreted in order to assume a different identity. This has involved everything from the backdrop, hired costumes, make-up and hair-styling to Fosso practising each character’s facial expressions.
We see Fosso as Martin Luther King making an impassioned speech and in a mug shot image taken after King’s arrest in 1956, his prisoner’s plaque with the number 7089 hanging round his neck. Fosso also presents himself as Malcolm X, Miles “Dewey” Davis, and as Angela Davis, the American political activist and university professor who is the only woman that Fosso portrays in this series.
For another image, Fosso restaged the Esquire 1968 cover of Muhammad Ali in which Ali appears impaled by six arrows, martyred as St. Sebastian, a patron saint of athletes. (It alluded to his refusal to be conscripted into the US army to fight in the Vietnam War because of his Muslim beliefs. Consequently, Ali was stripped of the World Title and had his boxing license revoked.) Fosso also poses as Tommie Smith raising his fist into the air after receiving his medal for winning the 200-metre sprint in the 1968 Olympics.
Other images pay homage to important, 20th century African leaders. We see
Fosso as Nelson Mandela wearing white African robes, a beaded, tribal collar and arm bracelet; the photograph was released by the African National Congress in the 1960s.
Fosso also honours Aimé Césaire, the poet, dramatist, statesman and former deputy of Martinique in the French National Assembly, and Léopold Senghor, the former President of Senegal. They were both principal founders of the concept of negritude—the awareness of the cultural and historical consequences of being African, or of having African descent, in a then white-dominated world.
Equally, Fosso imagines himself as Patrice Emery Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. Lumumba was the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo after he helped win its independence from Belgium in June 1960; his government was deposed in a coup during the Congo Crisis, and Lumumba was imprisoned and murdered. Similarly, Nkrumah, the first head of an independent Ghana who led his country to independence in 1957, was overthrown in a coup nine years later and died in exile.
The other African leader Fosso role-plays is Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor and one of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity. He is regarded by many as the figurehead of African independence for his defiance against the Italian colonial invasion in the 1930s.
Anna Sansom: What was your childhood in Cameroon and then Nigeria like?
Samuel Fosso: I was born in Cameroon in 1962. But I had a paralysing illness, and was paralysed in the arms and the legs. So when I was three, my mother took me to the south-eastern part of Nigeria, in Biafra, to be healed; that’s where her parents, brothers and sisters all lived. My grandfather was both village chief and healer. After I was healed, I continued living with my grandparents and in the meantime my mother died. Then the Biafra War broke out and we didn’t have any means to survive. One of my uncles, who had escaped and opened a small footwear factory in Bangui, came to get me in 1972 and I worked in his factory.
AS: How did you come to open your first photography studio when you were 13?
SF: I walked past by a studio owed by a Nigerian—at that time, there were only two photographers in Bangui: one from Cameroon and then this man. My uncle’s wife convinced my uncle to let me work for the Nigerian photographer as an apprentice. Then I opened my first studio, the Studio Photo National, on 14 September 1975, using 6 x 8 films. People came to do family photos, photos with friends, National Holidays, New Years… For me, taking photos for clients was utopian because I was in my own studio.
AS: I read that you started making self-portraits because you wanted to send them to your grandmother.
SF: Yes, when I started taking photographs, I took the opportunity to make self-portraits that I could send to her, to reassure her that there were no problems and that everything was going well for me. At night, I used the scraps of leftover film to take my self-portraits. I used American magazines, especially photos of black musicians like James Brown. To create the outfits, I bought fabrics and took them to a tailor. I showed him the pictures in the magazines so he could make me clothes that I could wear for my self-portraits. That’s how I started. I would also design the décor.
AS: You were also interested in politics?
SF: I was always alone, and I listened to the radio and watched television, and followed the politicians and history. And I realised that it was because of the rich people and the politicians that I suffered during my childhood with the Biafra War. That’s what made me want to look into who was good and who was bad. And when I became an artist in 1994, I thought it was important to communicate what I thought about this.
AS: How was your work discovered?
SF: I was discovered in 1993 by a Frenchman called Bernard Descamps, who was looking for photographs for Afrique en création to present at the first edition of Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine [“Meetings of African Photography”] in Bamako, Mali. So he was curious about meeting African photographers. Somebody I know heard about this and brought him to meet me in my studio. I showed him my colour pictures but he wanted the older photos from the 70s and 80s that I had kept. Whenever I would make my self-portraits back then, I would send one picture to my grandmother and keep one for myself so that if I ever got married one day I could show them to my children.
Bernard took my work away in his suitcase and the next year I was invited to participate in the exhibition in Bamako. The president of the Republic of Mali came. I was very happy and honoured. He asked if I sold my photos, but I didn’t know what that meant. After that, I exhibited all over the world and that’s how the sales of my photos started.
AS: How did participating in Africa Remix at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and then at the Southbank Centre in London help your career?
SF: Africa Remix didn’t change my life because my work had already been exhibited a lot before. Since my work was discovered in 1994, I never stopped showing elsewhere. I’ve shown all over the world.
AS: What was the starting point for African Spirits?
SF: It follows on from my earlier Tati series and shows black identity. I want to pay homage to what these black people did. Because I am a black man and you are a white woman and today we are talking together. It’s grandeur for me. And some of these men sacrificed themselves for this. I made the series in black-and-white photography because I feel as if I am in my natural colours.
AS: Where were the photos made?
SF: I set up my studio here in the gallery. I put up the décor and hired the clothes. In Europe there are always people who keep old costumes.
AS: The photograph you’ve made of Mohamed Ali reinterprets the 1968 cover of Esquire magazine. Why did you choose this portrait of him?
SF: Even though he was alive, Mohamed Ali was dead in his heart because of the suffering of the black Americans. It reminds me of the segregation of black Americans. They suffered more than the Africans. Their ancestors were put in chains to go to America for centuries and centuries and centuries.
AS: Do you have a favourite image?
SF: The one of Nelson Mandela. In October 1980, I received my passport and I could go anywhere except South Africa. That was because of him, because he was in prison. I’ve never met him.
AS: Who else would you like to portray in your self-portraits?
SF: There are other people that I would like to include too, like Ghandi and Mao. I’m only one person but I facilitate things. I’m a defender of all of them; I communicate the past in the present.
AS: Have you ever portrayed your grandmother?
SF: No, but I think I will one day.
AS: I read that your neighbours in Bangui aren’t even aware of your status as a successful artist.
SF: My neighbours do not know me as a photographer, for my own security. In fact they think I’m doing magic! They don’t really understand the idea of being an artist-photographer. But it would be stupid to live in Europe. I have my life over there.
TEXT BY ANNA SANSOM
©image Samuel Fosso