Samuel Fosso’s self-possessed self-portraits have been widely celebrated—working in his studio, Fosso presents himself as a range of characters defined by their clothing and poses, set against stylized backdrops. Fosso is one of a constellation of art stars of West African portrait photography—working a generation or two before him were Seydou Keïta, Oumar Ka, J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere and Malick Sidibé, who photographed beautifully dressed men and women in a variety of styles, focusing on fashion as a form of personal expression. “In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa,” up until January at the Metropolitan Museum of Art places these artists and others in a wider context of African portrait photography, both commercial and fine art, which stretches back nearly to the medium’s beginning. Drawn mainly from the Met’s Visual Resource Archives in the department of Africa, Oceania and America, the show includes postcards, albumen prints, silver gelatin photographs and glass negatives made by amateur and professional photographers, dating back to the 1880s.
Postcards from the Met’s collection are one focus of the show. While the images they show often supported ruling colonial powers, highlighting the exoticism of their subjects and cataloging them as types, the postcards, produced mostly between 1900 and 1960, were consumed by both Africans and Europeans. Almost 9,000 were made in West Africa during that period, (by more than two dozen producers in Senegal alone), but the circumstance of their production is often unknown. The images appear to come from portraits commissioned by the people they depict and made by African and European photographers. They show individuals or groups in beautifully printed robes and traditional clothes, seated stiffly or informally against ornate painted backdrops. Postcards made from these images, with or without the permission of their subjects, circulated among both local and international audiences. As this show proves, the practice of portraiture in West Africa has only become more complex and more diverse since then, and the appetite for it—at home and abroad—has grown.