The images by Samuel Fosso now on view at The Walther Collection Project Space in New York City were made over the past 20 years, and the show offers a rare opportunity for viewers in the U.S. to explore this innovative, protean artist’s work in depth. Fosso was born in Cameroon, raised in Nigeria, and opened a portrait studio in Bangui in the Central African Republic in the mid-1970s when he was only a teenager. Throughout his career, he has used self-portraiture to slyly and wittily send up pop culture, African iconography and political propaganda.
The show at The Walther Collection includes images from Fosso’s 2008 series “African Spirits,” in which the photographer recreated well-known images of African independence leaders and African-American civil rights activists—Halie Salassie, Angela Davis, Malcolm X [slide 3], Muhammed Ali—with himself dressed as the famous subjects. In his 2013 series “The Emperor of Africa,” he photographed himself in recreations of iconographic images of Mao Tse-Tung. Also in the exhibition is a series commissioned in 1997 by the Paris department store Tati [slides 4 and 5]. Posing on painted backdrops, Fosso appears in elaborate costumes masquerading as a sophisticated urban woman, a man in old-fashioned golf attire, and an African chief surrounded by trappings of power.
The images are pulled from The Walther Collection, a private, non-profit foundation devoted to contemporary art, particularly from Africa. Earlier this year, in the midst of ongoing fighting in the Central African Republic, Fosso’s studio was ransacked and looted. Photojournalists Jerome Delay and Marcus Bleasdale discovered hundreds of negatives and prints lying in the dirt and rescued them quickly. It’s a near disaster that makes the archive of The Walther Collection seem all the more valuable. — Holly Stuart Hughes
“Samuel Fosso” at The Walther Collection Project Space in New York City runs through January 17, 2015.