Samuel Fosso (b. 1962, Cameroon) lived in Nigeria as a child but was forced to leave in 1972 at the end of the Biafran war, moving to Bangui, Central African Republic, where he continues to live and work. He took an early interest in photography and at the age of 13 opened his own studio for passport, portrait, and wedding photographs, providing his sitters with elaborate dress and backdrops. Clients preferred a quick turnaround and in order to use up leftover film and process it for printing at the end of the day, Fosso began taking pictures of himself, sending these to family back in Nigeria. His early self-portraits demonstrate an intrinsic interest in studied self-presentation: against makeshift backdrops, he experimented confidently with props, poses, and costumes. Going against dictatorial statutes banning bell bottoms and platform boots, he often defiantly luxuriated in these flamboyant 1970s fashions. The self-portraits allowed Fosso to document himself growing up, becoming as such a personal history.
Inspired in part by his Igbo heritage and Igbo performance traditions of masquerade and body art, Fosso began to create a more overtly theatrical style of self-portraiture. In Tati (1997) he staged colourful, satirical tableaux of characters such as a tribal chief and a liberated 1970s woman and in African Spirits (2008) he reinterpreted icons from black cultural monuments, the American Civil Rights movement, and African independent states, such as Martin Luther King and Haile Selassie.
Fosso’s work reveals his deep interest in the circulation of images. The poses and costumes in African Spirits are drawn from well-known photographs, such as Eve Arnold's quietly powerful portrait of Malcolm X (1961). Fosso’s astute understanding of the power that images accumulate through dissemination guides his approach, both in his careful restaging of celebrated portraits and in his playful evocation and deconstruction of stereotypes via his invented portraits.
Samuel Fosso's work was first brought to a wider audience at the Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Mali in 1994 and won the Afrique en Créations prize a year later. In 2018 he was given the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He has exhibited in major international venues including the Centre National de la Photographie, Paris; Tate Modern and National Portrait Gallery, London; Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art, New York and the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. He was included in the acclaimed Africa Remix exhibition which toured worldwide (including Hayward Gallery, London) 2004 - 2007, the 26th Sao Paolo Biennale and Performing for the Camera, Tate Modern, London 2016. His work is in held in many museum collections, including Museum of Modern Art, New York; J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Los Angeles County Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris and Tate, London.