LA FEMME LIBÉRÉE AMÉRICAINE DES ANNÉES '70 (THE LIBERATED AMERICAN WOMAN IN THE 1970S) 1997
By Samual Fosso (b. 1962)
Image © Samuel Fosso 1997, Courtesy of JM Patras/Paris.
Born in Cameroon, Samuel Fosso has lived and worked for most of his life in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic. His career started there at the age of 13 when he set up his own photography business taking pictures for weddings and passports. To finish up unused rolls of expensive film he began making self-portraits experimenting with different costumes, poses and backdrops. The pictures were taken with the aid of an auto timer and might involve several rehearsals before he was happy with the result.
There was perhaps something therapeutic about this documentation of his healthy youthful body. As a child he had suffered from paralysis in his limbs and his mother had been too ashamed to have any photographs taken of him. What started out as a private activity came to the attention of the art world in the early ’90s when his work was exhibited at some of the most prestigious photography venues in Africa and Europe. Since then he has continued to produce self-portraits in which, chameleon-like, he assumes the roles of a host of different characters.
One of Fosso’s best-known bodies of work was commissioned by the famous French chain store TATI to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 1997. The Liberated American Woman in the 1970s is one of the most memorable images from that series. Although the spirit of his photographs made for TATI might sometimes appear light-hearted and even comic, the subjects he addresses – slavery, colonialism, racial stereotyping – are far from trivial. Now with a healthy budget for costumes, makeup, props and studio assistants, Fosso puts himself before the camera in the guise of a number of stock characters; some of them could be modelling clothes and accessories, others border on parody. In perhaps the most overtly political of the series he appears as a mock tribal overlord who, in his own words, is emblematic of “all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white men”.
Click on the picture to open up a bigger view.
Fosso’s performance in the role of the liberated American woman is very specific in its reference to the highpoint of the Feminist movement in the 1970s. Drawing on the convention of the fashion shoot, her makeup, jewellery and costume – a combination of tailcoat suit with cowboy hat and stiletto shoes - are designed to blur the traditional distinctions of gendered dress code. Fosso also plays with western stereotypes of the ‘exotic’ by posing in front of a painted forest backdrop like an exhibit in a museum. The gorgeously coloured suit is made up of a patchwork of brightly coloured fabrics that suggest an African origin. On the other hand, the groundsheet on which she perches is the traditional red gingham or ‘Vichy’ cloth associated with the trademark TATI brand. The inclusion of this classically ‘French’ pattern may be intended as a nod to the commissioner’s anniversary but, ironically, it is thought to have its own colonial history having originated in Dutch Indonesia.
The final words go to Fosso who describes his liberated woman as,
“a dream that narrates slavery, segregation, and the desire to be free, to get revenge, to be independent from whites, from men, to be economically independent, to make a career for herself.”
The work is one of a number of contemporary photographs generously given to the University by collectors Mark Golder and Brian Thompson as a learning resource for students. It was acquired through the Purdy Hicks Gallery, London, with which the Djanogly Gallery has had a long and happy association.
To see more works by Samuel Fosso, visit Purdy Hick's website.