Co-Curating "Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts;" A&A Doctoral Student Iheanyi Onwuegbucha Describes the Collaborative Process

Jan. 12, 2023

A&A doctoral student Iheanyi Onwuegbucha is among the co-curators who assisted A&A and African American studies professor Chika Okeke-Agulu in producing the first museum survey of Samuel Fosso’s work in the United States: Samuel Fosso: Affirmative Acts, currently on exhibit at Art on Hulfish through January 29, 2023.  Silma Berrada ’22, doctoral student Lawrence Chamunorwa, and Maia Julis ’23 completed the curatorial team.

Professor Okeke-Agulu and 4 students contemplate the exhibition

The curatorial team. From left: Professor Okeke-Agulu, Silma Berrada ’22, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, Maia Julis ’23, and Lawrence Chamunorwa. (Photo/Kristina Giasi, Princeton University Art Museum)

Onwuegbucha and co-curators became involved with planning the exhibit through Okeke-Agulu’s fall 2021 ART 378 “Post-1945 African Photography” course. Okeke-Agulu had already established a close relationship with both the Walther Collection and Samuel Fosso to pave the way for the exhibit.  Having initiated discussions with the Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM), Okeke-Agulu invited the class to participate in the planning and execution of the show.  “The class had two meetings with the museum staff by the last weeks of the fall semester,”  Onwuegbucha explained, “However, because Professor Okeke-Agulu did not want members of the class to feel obliged to participate, the actual planning of the exhibition began in January 2022.”

A young Samuel Fosso holds two bouquets of flowers at his cheeks

Samuel Fosso, Self Portrait (Love is Tenderness) (1977, printed 2003), Museum purchase, anonymous gift, Princeton University Art Museum

Onwuegbucha brought extensive experience to the group, not just from prior exhibitions, but also from co-curating a touring exhibit of Samuel Fosso’s work in Germany that Okeke-Agulu had recommended him for. In Lagos, Nigeria, Onwuegbucha was the Artistic Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art as well as guest curator for the inaugural exhibitions of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at Lagos’s Pan Atlantic University and consulting art curator for the J.K. Randle Centre for Yoruba Culture and History.  By the time the group began meeting to plan the Princeton exhibit, Onwuegbucha was already planning to co-curate the German Iteration of the traveling retrospective Samuel Fosso: The Man with a Thousand Faces at The Walther Collection, Neu Ulm, Germany. This exhibition opened on May 29, 2022, and closed on 18 November, a day before the Princeton exhibition opened. With 150 objects, the Neu Ulm show aimed to celebrate Fosso’s life and work on a broader scale.

In contrast, Onwuegbucha and co-curators aimed to focus on the resilience manifested in Fosso’s work.  In Onwuegbucha’s words, “We wanted to show how Samuel Fosso, as a survivalist, having lost most of his childhood to disability and war, has tried throughout his work to assert himself using performative self-portraiture.” The group arrived at this concept and many other components of the show collaboratively. “In the initial stages of the process, we all made decisions collectively. For instance, to arrive at the exhibition idea, the curators wrote and submitted individual ideas to Professor Okeke-Agulu, who then aggregated our ideas and his own into the concept of ‘affirmative acts,’” Onwuegbucha explained.  “Each person selected works from Fosso’s oeuvre that were vital in his career and our subject matter and discussed them as a group to make a final list.”

“We wanted to show how Samuel Fosso, as a survivalist, having lost most of his childhood to disability and war, has tried throughout his work to assert himself using performative self-portraiture.”

View of Samuel Fosso exhibition

Photo/Princeton University Art Museum

Co-curators also worked on facets of the exhibition individually. The writing of interpretive texts, for example, was divided among co-curators, including Okeke-Agulu, and texts were individually written.  Onwuegbucha and Okeke-Agulu, who had more curatorial experience, worked on the exhibition layout, display design, brochure, image and copyright clearance, production, and installation, together with the museum staff. 

SketchUp of gallery mockup

Onwuegbucha's SketchUp 3D drawing of the gallery layout and display design

With Okeke-Agulu and Mike Jacobs, PUAM Senior Gallery Designer and Manager of Exhibitions Service, Onwuegbucha created a SketchUp 3D drawing of the gallery layout and display design.  Upon approval by Okeke-Agulu and PUAM director James Steward, the final installation decisions and adjustments were made by Onwuegbucha and Okeke-Agulu during the actual installation a few days before the opening when the works had arrived in Princeton and were laid out in the Art on Hulfish gallery. “It is always fascinating to see the exhibition ‘jump out’ from my computer screen to the gallery space,” said Onwuegbucha. “This is one of the joys of curating an exhibition!”

Onwuegbucha’s experience co-curating the Neu Ulm exhibition certainly benefited the Princeton show. “Having co-curated the German exhibition, I was more conversant with Fosso's work by the time we started working on the Princeton exhibition. In addition, I developed a good rapport with the artist, the staff of the Walther Collection and other institutions that were part of the German exhibition, which was very useful during our planning process here in Princeton,” said Onwuegbucha.

A young Samuel Fosso stands in front of a curtain in underclothes

Samuel Fosso, Self Portrait (Maillot, Life is Freedom) (1977), Museum purchase, anonymous gift, Princeton University Art Museum

Obtaining the photographs for display took a variety of forms.  Princeton University Art Museum purchased two photogaphs: Self Portrait (Love is Tenderness)(1977, printed 2003) and Self Portrait (Maillot, Life is Freedom) (1977). The group chose several works from the Walther Collection, which were fortunately all available for loan since the concurrent Neu Ulm touring exhibition, which showed many of the same works, produced exhibition copies explicitly for the tour.  That left The Black Pope, ALLONZENFANS, Emperor of Africa, and the studio portraits from Fosso’s archive, of which the group made exhibition copies with permission of the artist and original owners.  These were produced to the artist's specification by his dedicated printer in New York and will be destroyed when the exhibition closes. Finally, the group made a slide show of Fosso’s SIXSIXSIX, comprised of 666 images. 

Onwuegbucha found the most challenging part of the planning process to be keeping up with the abundance of correspondence required to produce an exhibition. “Managing the almost daily correspondences and decision-making processes with the large museum staff in the middle of the semester was fun but distracting as I had to juggle this with my semester's academic work. At this time, I was also curating an exhibition in Lagos, Nigeria,” said Onwuegbucha.

Professor Okeke-Agulu amused by Samuel Fosso

Professor Okeke-Agulu in conversation with Samuel Fosso. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Co-curating the Fosso exhibition has informed Onwuegbucha’s graduate work. “It was a very enlightening experience to work with Professor Okeke-Agulu on an exhibition process and learn from his vast curatorial experience. I have always longed for an opportunity to work with him on an exhibition, and I am happy it came to pass,” said Onwuegbucha.  Following his general exams, Onwuegbucha plans to attend to several gaps in the literature on Samuel Fosso’s work that became evident during the group’s research phase.

Samuel Fosso saw the exhibition himself and participated in a public conversation with Okeke-Agulu at Art on Hulfish on December 15, 2022.  The exhibition has been very well received, selected as a Critic’s Pick in the New York Times on January 5, 2023. To keep the conversation going about Samuel Fosso’s work and influence, Art on Hulfish is hosting two Wintersession events: an open house on January 19th, and a panel discussion organized and moderated by Onwuegbucha on January 27th, two days before the exhibition closes.  Onwuegbucha has engaged a diverse group of panelists to investigate the acute issues that Fosso addresses in his work.

Audience applauds Samuel Fosso in gallery

Professor Okeke-Agulu's conversation with Samuel Fosso drew a packed audience at Art on Hulfish in December 2022.  On screen, one of the 666 Polaroid self portraits from Samuel Fosso's SIXSIXSIX, produced in between October and November 2015. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“I believe it is important to always have a broader engagement with art exhibitions/artworks beyond the confines of art history and art criticism. The group of panelists, drawn from the fields of political science, history and religion will bring a diversity of opinions and knowledge from outside art history and photography as they respond to issues emerging from the postcolonial history and politics in Africa referenced in Samuel Fosso’s work. And there is no better time to have this discussion than now when several African countries are facing political, economic and social challenges reminiscent of the period immediately following independence. The panel not only creates an opportunity for a robust discussion on these pertinent issues but provides an appropriate intellectual engagement with the works of Samuel Fosso.”

– Iheanyi Onwuegbucha on the January 27, 2023 panel discussion at Art on Hulfish