Samuel Fosso’s Century in Selfies

His star turn came in the early nineties, when a scout for Rencontres de Bamako, a newly established biennial of African photography, visited his studio. Fosso didn’t yet consider himself an artist, but the West had recently “discovered” the Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, prompting an international craze for mid-century African studio portraiture. Soon, Fosso was exhibiting in Paris and receiving encouragement from Henri Cartier-Bresson, but he quickly ran up against curators’ preference for his early black-and-white portraits—fraught with nostalgia for the heady independence years—over more recent full-color experiments. A commission from the French retailer Tati gave him an opportunity to break free. In 1997, Fosso débuted a series of self-portraits in outfits from the store’s clothing line, posing as stock characters like rock star, bourgeois businessman, and a “Liberated American Woman of the 1970s.” Ironically, collaborating with a business afforded him a new degree of aesthetic autonomy; once seen as a chronicler of a particular time and place, he reinvented himself as a shape-shifting Everyman.

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