The Menil Collection Presents Samuel Fosso: African Spirits

Fourteen self-portraits depict Fosso portraying intellectuals, political leaders, and prominent figures associated with Black liberation movements

Kathleen Coleman | 4/29/2022, 12:33 p.m.

The Menil Collection is pleased to present Samuel Fosso: African Spirits, an exhibition of the four- teen, large-scale gelatin silver prints from Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits series. The show—on view at the Menil from August 5, 2022 through January 15, 2023—is presented in conjunction with the 2022 FotoFest Biennial and African Cosmologies Redux, a new presentation of photography originally cu- rated by Dr. Mark Sealy OBE, Director of Autograph, London, and Professor at University of the Arts London.

In this series of self-portraits, completed in 2008, Fosso portrays himself as Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Malcolm X, and other prominent figures from 20th century Black liberation movements. Fosso’s photographs reference iconic images, such as Carl Fischer’s photograph of Muhammad Ali that was published on the cover of Esquire in 1968 and the police mugshot taken of King after his arrest during the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Fosso’s reinterpretations of these historic photographs pay homage to the figures in the original images and raise questions about individuality, celebrity, the media, and the complicated history of representation.

Paul R. Davis, Curator of Collections at the Menil Collection, said, “The African Spirits series points to Fosso’s artistry at picturing transformative moments in the lives of luminary figures. His subjects represent the cultural and spiritual tissue connecting liberation movements in the U.S. and those on the African continent. We are honored to collaborate with FotoFest and host this exhibition of Fosso’s photography at the Menil in conjunction with the biennial’s African Cosmologies Redux project.”

Regarding his exhibition at the Menil, Samuel Fosso said, “I am proud to see the African Spirits series exhibited at the Menil Collection. I have a deep respect for the actions of Dominique and John de Menil, discovered in the Menil’s publication Art and Activism. I made this series so that more people can understand the history of these important figures and to share the thirst for democratization, which is also at the foundation of the Menil’s fabulous collection.”

Born in Cameroon, Samuel Fosso lived in Nigeria until the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967–70), when he and his uncle moved to Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. It was there that Fosso apprenticed with a local studio photographer. In 1975, when he was just thirteen years old, Fosso opened his own commercial portrait studio, Studio Photo National. He routinely finished off unused rolls of film by taking self-portraits that he displayed to promote his studio business or he sent to his family living in Nigeria.