Samuel Fosso was born in 1962 in Kumba, Cameroon. He came from a Nigerian family and grew up in the Biafra region of southeastern Nigeria, where ethnic groups led by the Igbo declared their independence from Nigeria in 1967. The outbreak of ethnic conflicts led to a civil war that was to end in 1970 with the reintegration of Biafra into Nigeria, from which the five-year-old fled to an uncle in the Central African Republic. In Bangui, he completed an apprenticeship with a local photographer and became his assistant. In 1975, at the age of 13, Fosso became commercially independent as a portrait photographer and opened his own photo studio. As an artist, Samuel Fosso is self-taught. Leading African photographers, such as Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, recognized the quality of Fosso's work early on and motivated him to continue. Okwui Enwezor and Iké Udé encouraged his artistic activity and opened up the international art field to him. He lives in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic and in Paris, France.
In 1994 he won the first prize of African Photography Encounters (Rencontres de la Photographie) the most important festival of its kind in Bamako, Mali, and in 1995 the Prix Afrique en Creations; in 2000 the Dak'Art - Biennale de l'Art Africain Contemporain, Dakar, Sénégal awarded him the first prize in the photography category; the Netherlands gave him the Prince Claus Award in 2001 and in 2010 he was awarded the first prize of the Visual Arts Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. His works are in the collections of MoMA, New York, USA, Tate, London, GB, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA, Walther Sammlung, Neu-Ulm, D and in the Generali Foundation Collection - on permanent loan at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, which dedicated the first major retrospective in the German-speaking world to him in 2022.
Samuel Fosso is one of Africa's most important photographers. He became known for the genre of portrait photography. All photographs show his own person and tell a story. These self-portraits, in which he questions identity as a general cultural construct and overcomes it through individual representation up to queer self-staging, became his trademark.
During the day in the 1970s, he took traditional studio photographs of his clients with the aim of capturing the individuality of his subject as authentically and realistically as possible. In the evenings, he used the photo studio as a place for performative self-staging. With the remainder of the unexposed film left in his camera, he shot unconventional portrait photos of himself. These early black-and-white photographs document the adolescent's process of self-exploration as he grows up. Fosso conceives of his identity as self-determined and creates different facets of his person as autonomous statements. In this way, he countered the type photography of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which European colonialists used as a quasi-objective means of documenting their positivist understanding of science to produce anthropometric photographs of "typical representatives" of a particular people or ethnic group. The step Fosso took of stepping in front of the camera himself meant changing sides and perspectives. By consistently using the self-timer, he always maintained control over the image he created of himself. In the mirror of the camera, he used costumes and props to try out unconventional poses and different gender identities. Photographic wallpaper and fabric panels reveal the studio ambience and the method of staging. Alternately, Fosso posed in European suit fashion, traditional African dress, navy uniform, karate suit, boxer shorts, common everyday wear, and flamboyant fashion, which he complemented with jewelry and accessories. His inspiration came from the Igbo tradition of masquerade and body art, which he elevated to the spirit of 1970s youth culture, advertising, lifestyle magazines, and representatives of popular West African music. The artist initially kept these photos hidden for fear of political repression. His changeability led him to a photographic aesthetic that he developed steadily and in parallel with Cindy Sherman (1954 New Jersey, USA - New York, USA). Sherman's self-portraits are conceptual stagings of an exploration of questions about identity, role models, and corporeality. Similar to Fosso, she disguises herself in people of different ages, skin colors, social origins, and historical times, provocatively recreates clichés, types, and stereotypes, and critically exposes the sexism of a male gaze. Fosso is distinguished from this by a spiritual moment that is missing from Sherman's artistic approach. It is grounded, along with his passion for costuming, in his descent from the Igbo, who use brightly colored clothing and masks for vivacious performances in which the living connect with their ancestors. According to their conception, visible and invisible forces intertwine in our world, creating a reality in which the living are not only closely connected to the spirits of the deceased, but interact, empowering ancestors to participate in the present. Against this backdrop, the idea resonates that in 2008 the artist made fourteen icons of the black civil rights movement from Africa and North America, who fought for equality, independence and freedom for the black population, his subject in order to keep alive, as it were, the spirit of their central concerns as a medium. This large-format black-and-white series became internationally known under the title African Spirits. In these photographs, Fosso confronts us with, among others, the politicians Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba, the civil rights activists Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the athletes Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith. Pre-existing photographic material, snapshots, press photos, mug shots and professional photo portraits served him as models.
Fosso embodies people and roles in performative theatricality. He does not simply imitate them, he transforms himself into them. This emphasizes the essential difference: Sherman uses the mask in the tradition of European subjectivity in the field of tension between showing and concealing. For Fosso it is a medium of transformation. On the one hand, he shows how a person can make use of clothing, accessories, hairstyle, and body language in order to let an image become an identity through targeted self-stylization. But he goes beyond that: in different roles he thematizes messages or keeps political world views and ideals alive. The sum of his images forms a common history of pan-African identity. It tells of the culture of negation and forgetting, of exclusion, exploitation and oppression, and of the search for identity in a global context after the overcoming of foreign colonial powers. Fosso is a storyteller, a griot in the best sense of West African tradition, who replaces words with photographs, advocates for the rights of colored people, and thus radically expands the function of the self-portrait. (Doris Leutgeb)