New York

Samuel Fosso

Posed against a stained curtain, a slim young sailor-prince wearing high-waisted bell-bottoms, a cap printed with the Kodak logo, and extra-large sunglasses gazes off into an imaginary distance. The studio lights that illuminate him are visible on either side of the frame, as is the camera’s own reflection in one of the lamps. In another image in this survey of Samuel Fosso’s nearly three-decade-long practice of self-portraiture, the kneeling photographer supplicates his camera with two fistfuls of flowers, like a heartthrob in an old Hollywood romance. Fosso conjures instant glamour and fantastic personas with the barest of means: A cheap bath towel draped across his slight shoulders lends him the untouchable elegance of a movie star relaxing between scenes, and in several photos ordinary vinyl dishwashing gloves are worn with dandyish insouciance. Ninjas, businessmen, pop stars, and aristocrats are among the many makeshift identities experimented with in the self-portraits Fosso began shooting during his teens in the mid-’70s.

Born in Cameroon, Fosso opened his own photo studio at age thirteen in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. After business hours he would document himself, sending the pictures to his family, whom he’d left in Nigeria following the Biafran war. The earliest photograph in this exhibition (Self Portrait [Réception], 1975) shows the boy entrepreneur seated behind his studio counter, which is hung with a handpainted sales pitch: VOUS SEREZ BEAU, CHIC, GENTIL ET FACILE À RECONNAÎTRE His earliest images were produced in a period of coups, violence, political instability, and the brutal reign and deposition of the self-declared emperor Bokassa. Equally remarkable—especially considering the turbulent context he was working in—are the joyful obsessiveness of the young photographer’s subjective freestyling and the dreamy free space he articulates within the cramped confines of a single camera setup. Always posed against the same wall (sometimes painted with scenic views, sometimes decorated with hung fabrics), Fosso elaborates an experimental process of self-invention and playacting inspired by popular-magazine imagery. Cindy Sherman’s film stills might come to mind; but Fosso’s images were produced in isolation, far from the international art world, and didn’t find recognition there until the ’90s. This solo exhibition, long-overdue, is his first ever in New York.

In a group of color images from 1997, where Fosso appears in drag, as a sailor, in a suit talking on a cell phone, and as a pirate clutching a handful of costume jewelry, something obvious and campy invades his approach, and—perhaps thanks to art-world integration or because he now addresses a new and wider audience—his aesthetic starts to lose some of its fascination. But in the most recent work, and his return to black and white, Fosso regains the startling singularity of his initial attempts. For these images (all dated 2000), he strikes haunted, sometimes terrorized poses—crouching naked in a cardboard box among rusty paint cans, reclining like a spooked Olympia under grim mosquito nets in a room resembling a prison cell. As existentially harrowing as these expressions appear, a playful narcissism and a sovereign will to fiction persist. Stripping his images of fashion and pop references, the photographer addresses the realities of political violence without letting go of the fabulous and fabulating possibilities of his medium.

John Kelsey