Me, myself and I: Photographer Samuel Fosso assumes the identity of stars and stereotypes

The self-portraits are winning, witty and thoroughly theatrical, says Alice-Azania Jarvis
Click to follow

When Samuel Fosso's work went on show at the Guernsey Photography Festival earlier this month, it marked the African photographer's first UK exhibition in six years. And what an effort he's made to get here.

As it turns out, there is no consulate representation in the Central African Republic, where Fosso lives, his neighbours largely unaware of his overseas success. Obtaining a visa would have meant a six-hour journey to Cameroon, followed by a two-month wait for the result.

And so it was that Lyndon Trott, Chief Minister of Guernsey, found himself calling the British ambassador in France to ask for a favour. Fosso was duly flown to Paris, where he was granted a visa by the British embassy, before finally making his way to the island.

Born in Cameroon in 1962, Fosso spent his early childhood in Nigeria. In 1972, with the Biafran war over, he moved to Bangui in the Central African Republic. It was there that he discovered his talent, spending six months as an assistant photographer. Aged 13, he opened his first studio, photographing clients and taking self-portraits of himself to send to his mother.

His sideline soon became a subject for experimentation; before long, the young Fosso was photographing himself using new poses, costumes and techniques. In 1994, a chance encounter with a French talent scout led to a career that has seen him exhibited across the globe – from the Photographers Gallery in London to New York's Guggenheim Museum.

In the two series to be shown at the Festival, African Spirits and Tati, the artist is shown assuming the identity of specific figures. Spirits has him dressed as various icons of black cultural identity – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali – while in Tati he appears as a range of generic fictional characters, from "British Golfer" to "Pirate".

Throughout both, common strands are clear. Whether shot in colour or monochrome, a certain theatrical campness is retained. Fosso both cracks the joke and is laughing at it. The humour is knowing, self-referential. As Ali, he invests the boxer with a messianic glory – head aloft, arrows piercing his body, he resembles a rather under-dressed angel. Angela Davis, in turn, is both haughty and hip, peering out from behind her shades to give someone – or something – a sidelong glance.

Samuel Fosso's African Spirits and Tati can be seen at the Guernsey Photography Festival until 30 June.