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Through fifteen photographs by Cameroonian artist Samuel Fosso, the Fondation Zinsou's new exhibition takes visitors on a chronological journey through the creative process of this extraordinary photographer. 

Nothing predisposed Samuel Fosso to become a photographer. Yet in 1975, fleeing the horrors of the Biafran war and leaving his family behind, he opened his first photo studio in Bangui: "Studio Nationale". 

Since then, he has never ceased to play with the ambiguities of a genre in which he excels: the self-portrait. 

From a narcissistic approach in the 70s, where the desire to bear witness to an era is hidden behind an exalted cross-dressing of male beauty, to the colorful, stereotyped stagings of the Tati series, Samuel Fosso's self-portraits are not a monologue with himself, but a dialogue with the viewer, with art and history in the background. 

Welcomed into a black-and-white space, visitors discover Samuel Fosso's world through a series of five photographs illustrating his early days when he opened his studio, still taming his camera. 

At the time, Fosso was making black-and-white portraits in his studio in the worthy tradition of his Malian elders, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. But where Keïta used draped backgrounds and luxurious accessories, exalting success and self-image in response to the stereotypes of colonization, thus inscribing his photographs in immortality, Fosso offered incredibly modern painted backgrounds, with brand-new buildings, a well-developed road network and state-of-the-art accessories, thus sweeping away immortality to make way for modernity. 

This modernity became essential to Fosso, and is seen with unprecedented force in his first self-portraits in the 1970s. 

The last photograph, presented in this space, illustrates the metamorphosis from artisan-photographer to artist-photographer. This transformation will take place through self-portraiture.

In the evening, when the last customers have left, Samuel Fosso slips on tight-fitting shirts, platform shoes and dark glasses that suggest all the glamour and insolence of the 70s. 

And there, in front of his camera lens, he feels the vital, almost physiological need to photograph himself; he strikes a pose and becomes his own model. 

Is this the narcissistic gaze of a teenager, or the affirmation of a new identity? Certainly both. Samuel Fosso reveals himself, imagining a real world that corresponds to him, one that frees him from his history. A world which, because he has invented it, can extract him from the arid reality of everyday life. 

Without concern for external contingencies, Samuel Fosso fashions a world in his own image.

Self-portrait as psychoanalysis. For Fosso, self-portraiture becomes a rite of initiation that frees him from his history, enabling him to pass from childhood to adulthood like a second birth, the birth of an artist. 


On the 1st floor, a colorful scenography presents 10 photographs from the Tati series, commissioned in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of the famous French retailer. 

Fosso, along with Keïta and Sidibé, were invited to photograph any passer-by in the street. A studio tent was set up in the heart of Barbès, Paris. Fosso will transcend the commission, an art form that often rhymes with exceptional achievement, forcing the artist to go beyond himself, creating something he would never have created. 

A frenzy of color and extravagant clothing, Fosso takes on increasingly diverse and powerful roles: sailor, pirate, golf player, executive or even a femme fatale with "La Bourgeoise". 

Fosso has created his own style! Malick Sidibé marveled and said of him: 

"His style is himself. He has invented his own way of thinking". 

But beyond this joyful and colorful masquerade, a political dimension emerges. A powerful, acerbic critique is revealed, akin to the great satirical comedies of the Age of Enlightenment. 

The staging is used for critical purposes: he uses his image and disguise to poke fun at Western clichés and politics. 

These photographs represent a break with the artist's ingenuous quest. He is no longer the subject of his self-portrait, but the vector of an expression, a message. The leading role is no longer played by Samuel Fosso, but by the message he wishes to convey, as "La femme américaine libérée" and "Le Chef (celui qui a vendu l'Afrique aux colons)" clearly demonstrate. 

To round off the exhibition, visitors can try their hand at the art of self-portraiture in a specially created photo studio. A dressing room and accessories are also available.

Being useful, by Simon Njami Opening a contemporary art space in Africa might seem a challenge. Yet only impossible bets are worth taking. And why say it's an impossible gamble? Contemporary art is no stranger to Africa. Quite the contrary, in fact. There are different ways of doing things, outside the established circles. There are different philosophies and issues at stake, and it's this constancy that makes initiatives that take shape outside the Western comfort zone all the more exciting. The Fondation Zinsou initiative is one such example. It would be pointless - but some people still haven't understood this - to try and create a MOMA or a Centre Pompidou in Africa. These institutions were created within a precise framework, to meet the specific needs of a given society. And that's the secret of success: responding to an endogenous problem rather than importing models that may work in other territories, but are no less inadequate in others. The creators of the Cotonou Foundation understand this. How do you convey the message of contemporary art in an environment where the basic tools (museums, schools, funding, awareness and political commitment) are lacking? How do you speak to a population whose daily concerns are not in line with current art trends? And, finally, how do we respond to a youthful population which, everyone agrees, is the most precious asset of the world's youngest continent? These are the questions that the Foundation team, whose work I have supported and followed since its creation, has decided to tackle. Giving priority to young minds and helping them to awaken and develop their sensibilities has been the Foundation's priority from day one. Some time ago, I was invited to give a talk at an exhibition featuring the work of Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso. I was curious, I must confess, to see how the work of self-portraits would be presented, in a milieu for which (but it was the same in the West) photography, being seemingly within everyone's reach, is not considered an art form. I was not disappointed. There is a fundamental element in the apprehension of contemporary art, which is, as Ernst Bloch put it, play: "But we take things from the beginning. We are poor, we no longer know how to play. We've forgotten, the hand has unlearned how to tinker." (Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia) All learning presupposes tinkering. It involves distancing oneself from the object of study, so as to see it as an experience to be lived rather than a theory to be digested. This is the method adopted by Fondation Zinsou. On the one hand, there were the photographs, traditionally hung according to the rules of art, and on the other, the studio. Fosso's work, through this staging that allowed everyone to put themselves in the artist's shoes, no longer became something to be looked at passively and from the outside, but something in which we could become the actors. Watching visitors, children and adults alike, get caught up in the game of posing and cross-dressing confirmed, in a concrete way, the accuracy of the intuition that guides this institution. For, while it is important to provide "learners" with the toolbox that will enable them to think for themselves, it is even more important, as Gilles Deleuze reminded us, that this "toolbox" be operative: "A theory is exactly like a toolbox. It has to be useful. It has to work. And not for its own sake. If nobody uses it, starting with the theorist himself (who ceases to be a theorist), the theory has no purpose, or the moment is inappropriate. Simon Njami Writer and curator (excerpt from the Fondation Zinsou 10-Year Book)

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