All about me

Samuel Fosso is one of Africa's most distinguished photographers. But for many years - in fear of censorship and his life - he was forced to keep his extraordinary self-portraits secret.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE ARE no photographs of Samuel Fosso's childhood. Perhaps it's just as well. They would have been a painful record of misery, violence and flight. The Fosso family were victims of the Nigerian war that followed the declaration of Biafran independence in 1967 when, like five million other terrified refugees, they fled from their hometown and hid from federal troops in the forest for three years, living on leaves and roots. After hostilities ceased, the young Samuel worked gruelling days in the town of Bangui (now capital of the Central African Republic), apprenticed to his uncle's shoe factory. Then, one day, he passed by a photography studio and instantly decided this was where his career would lie. Through another uncle he became apprenticed to the Nigerian studio snapper, and opened his own Studio Photo National a year later, still only 13.

Contemporary pictures show Fosso as a confident young dude in 1975, skinny and self-consciously cool in tight, razor-creased bell-bottoms and Chelsea Girl shades. A natural image-maker, he took studio shots of babies, graduates and newlyweds by day - but at night, he did something else. He began to photograph himself in a variety of poses, mimicking French clothing catalogues, English record sleeves, American soul singers... He photographed himself as reflective, brash, innocent, romantic, narcissistic, coquettish. Words printed on torn paper accompanied close-ups of his face. Shredded trousers and PVC platform boots hinted at a flirtation with cross-dressing. The paraphernalia of studio filming - the curtains and huge floodlights - began to invade the images, drawing attention to the artifice of the scenes. In front of his camera, an existential journey was being recorded, while, out in the world of power, the repressive dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa proclaimed himself Emperor and wooed the Western powers with diamonds and uranium.

Among other privations of the Bokassa regime, tight-fitting clothes and displays of nakedness were forbidden. "I didn't show anyone my self-portraits," Fosso recalled last year. "In the beginning, I dressed in underwear or in bathing suits and took pictures of myself. It was fun. It felt good ... I was liberated from the past, from the suffering."

It might have remained a purely private f journey, had it not been for Bernard Descamps, the French arts impresario, who met Fosso in 1993 while on the lookout for photographs for an exhibition in Mali. He pulled out boxes of photographic juvenilia, marvelled at their quality, and left with a suitcase-full. Fosso was, he says, "dumbstruck" by the attention. In the culture he'd grown up in, nobody would dream of buying an image of another person.

Fosso is a classic example of the commercial artist who, by accident and experiment, discovers an artistic calling and follows it to the limit. His tentative steps in the realm of "alternative selves" photography was unconsciously shadowing the career of Cindy Sherman and her impersonations of the tarnished American dream. Fosso, through a commission in 1997 from the Magasins Tati, explored something similar - the Westernised African, the smug urban bourgeois who has lost touch with his past. Against a variety of garish backdrops, Fosso's new Africans smirk and preen, and regard the camera lens with cheery disdain for their indigenous identity.

Over the last decade, Fosso's reputation has sky-rocketed. His one-man shows have appeared in Paris, London, Madrid and New York. His work now hangs in the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And from 10 February, it can be seen at London's Hayward Gallery, as part of the huge, multi-media Africa Remix season.

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