By Julian Lucas
January 21, 2023
It often takes a few moments to recognize Samuel Fosso in his self-portraits. He’s a picture of otherworldly piety as the first Black Pope, stepping on a space rock as though ready to catechize the cosmos. (It’s a cheeky allusion to Maurizio Cattelan’s controversial sculpture of a meteorite striking John Paul II.) Then, suddenly, he’s late-sixties Angela Davis, throwing dialectical side-eye from beneath her world-historical fro. The makeup and costumes are immaculate—in the first image, Fosso wears genuine vestments from the papacy’s official tailor—but the real force of his photos lies in their author’s remarkable absorption, as much a giveaway as his hypnotic stare and pronounced Cupid’s-bow lips. “When I work, it’s always a performance that I choose to undertake,” he once said in an interview. “It’s not a subject or an object; it’s one more human being.”
In “Affirmative Acts,” his first museum survey in the United States, Fosso reënacts the modern history of Africa and its diaspora in the form of a one-man masquerade. The exhibition—insightfully curated by the Princeton art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu and his students at the university art museum’s interim space Art on Hulfish—is an overdue introduction to one of photography’s most versatile performers. Fosso is best known for stylized caricatures like “The Chief Who Sold Africa to the Colonists” (1997), a sendup of dictator chic in which he appears draped in leopard skins and gold jewelry, clutching a scepter of sunflowers that grows from a purse. (A nearby pair of crimson loafers matches his bloody fingernails.) More recently, he’s lampooned China’s ambitions on the continent, puckishly adapting official portraits of Chairman Mao for a series called “Emperor of Africa.” Satire, though, is only an aspect of his endlessly self-regarding yet surprisingly selfless practice, whose pageantry is counterbalanced by more visceral reflections on the body’s vulnerability amid war and exile.