A Fosso Walk

by Emmanuel Iduma

January 12, 2015

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body is also full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be completely lighted, as when the light of a lamp shines on you.


The Bible, Luke 11:34-36, New International Version

In the early 1970s, when he was only a teenager, the Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso had embarked on an almost-2,000 kilometer trip from Edda, a southeastern Nigerian town, to Bangui, a prominent city in Central African Republic. The trip must have been by car. But if you were to travel on foot, it would take 19 days of nonstop walking, or approximately 29 days with 8-hour rests, to walk to Bangui from Edda. Forty years later, a young writer called Jea, a fledging art critic, believed it was possible to understand Fosso’s self-portraits better if he traveled as Fosso had, only this time by foot.

Fosso had traversed this route for practical reasons: to find a better home, to escape oppression, to work, to survive. In the years immediately following the Biafran war, Igbos –the ethnic group of failed secessionists– became impoverished; Fosso's family was Igbo, and like other families sought cities in west and central Africa where they could breathe easily and make money without persecution. Bangui was an escape for one of Fosso's uncles, who by the early 1970s owned a shoemaking business there. Uncle Fosso asked the young Samuel to join him and help in the factory.

Fosso's Edda-Bangui route was important to highlight, in Jea's thinking, since it was in Bangui barely three years after his arrival from Edda that Fosso decided to work as an apprentice in a photographer's studio. By the time he was 13 in 1975, Fosso founded "Studio National," where he began to take portraits of himself, but the journey had begun in Edda. In a sense Jea couldn’t  explain to

Vintage Studio Portrait, 13 April 1978

© Samuel Fosso. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Jean Marc Patras / Galerie

anyone but himself, he was certain that the Edda-Bangui route nurtured Fosso’s photographic vision; that upon arriving in Bangui the photographer had become interested in how a person moved between identities. If Jea walked from Edda to Bangui, could the road render an affinity for Fosso's self-portraits impossible if he instead only looked at the photographs when they were hung on a wall? Did a photograph of a body displayed in a gallery possess the same logic as a body walking on the road? Would a body on the road –which moved through divergent spaces– fulfill the exigency of photographs that depicted the attempt at becoming more than one thing? These were emotionally wrenching questions for Jea. He paced for what seemed like days in his room in Enugu repeating the same questions aloud. Sometimes it occurred to him, as he'd read somewhere, that questions had a place in the past and in the future; if he pressed hard enough he would find the right shape for questions that responded to Fosso's pose in the photographs, as well as his prospective walk.

At the end of his ceaseless pacing, he arrived at two hypothetical conclusions: 1. The feet worked in correspondence to the eye—they could manifest the same level of intimacy; 2. a pedestrian could cover territories charted in self-portraits of borrowed identities; that is, photographs charted territories, and the pedestrian walked through them.


As Jea realized, most stories of performative walks were told by artists. It was necessary to present a similar model of walking as a creative gesture through the activity of a writer interested in writing about art. If anything, it guaranteed that the energy dispensed by him during his walk would in some way bring him closer to the rigor of making self-portrait photographs where the photographer was costumed as other people.

Jea’s walk would resonate with Suzanne Bocanegra's choreographic practice. To open Danspace Project's 2014 fall season, Bocanegra presented Little Dot, a twelve-hour installation that was part-dance and part-sculpture, which took inspiration from George Seunrat's painting Young Woman Powdering

Vintage Studio Portrait, 18 December 1977

© Samuel Fosso. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Jean Marc Patras / Galerie

Herself (1890). In Bocanegra's piece, pointe shoes, dyed to match the fourteen colors in the painting, were placed on poles with markings that showed how many times each color was used. Fourteen dancers from New York Theatre Ballet laced and unlaced their pointe shoes accordingly, and tapped out each color on an amplified stage. Jea was intrigued by how color was "tapped out" by feet –how what the eyes saw became a referent for how the feet move, the intimacy of seeing becoming the intimacy of moving. In preparation for his walk, he watched a video of the twelve-hour performance and saw how the tappings were formulaic, minimal, and recurrent. He knew it would certainly take more resilience than what was required for a half-day performance since he would be on the road for a longer time. Yet, the lesson was basic: It would be possible to achieve something close to precision with recurrent gestures.

Suzanne Bocanegra, Little Dot (2014)

© Peter Serling

Precision, here, meant understanding through attentive looking. Bocanegra's model worked because she had spent time looking at Seunrat's painting and extracted a specific number of dots that was tapped out by ballet dancers. There was a mathematical indulgence –a formulaic engagement– that excited and humbled Jea. The effort was imbued with insight without over-thinking; he understood Bocanegra's tribute to Seunrat without much trouble. Jea believed that for a work of art to be endearing the vision of the artist had to be clear and not overwrought. The enactment should correspond directly to the vision. As a result, the spectator could, with careful observance, appreciate the artist's impulses.


Spectators—it hadn't occurred to him anyone could watch him, or care about his walk, but upon preparing himself Jea considered how spectatorship could impact his outcome. Spectatorship could unfold in two forms: people could see him walking, and at a later stage, the account of his performative walk could be read. Those who would see him walking didn’t matter. His presence on roads wouldn't be movement-as-fanfare, and nothing would announce his impulses. A private unraveling of intimacy, he would simply walk; perhaps he would be mistaken as a reticent vagabond, a man of means suddenly courted by poverty or a fanatic of no known religious order. All of that didn't matter. By virtue of his unannounced presence he would secure the integrity of his tribute to Fosso's photographs. However, what he would write upon return would require some spectatorship.

Years ago, he had decided that his ideal reader would be a teenager in a suburban town, dedicated to reading each night by candlelight. Appealing to this reader required writing that was clear, direct, and well-paced. One thing about the writing was clear: the form would imitate the content. He was drawn time and again to constrained writing; for example, Jerzy Andrzejewski's The Gates of Paradise, (in Polish as Bramy Raju), was composed of two sentences that totaled 40,000 words. Jea thought he would like to allow the writing about the walk to resemble the constraints accompanying the walk—perhaps a book-length paragraph, shaped as a meander, paragraph without air, essential claustrophobia, or the pain-pleasure one feels when in love. However, each time he slipped into thoughts about the writing following the work he chastised himself, and returned to thinking of more imminent concerns.

For one thing, he was concerned about how the feet's motion would

Vintage Studio Portrait, 18 August 1986

 © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Jean Marc Patras / Galerie

refer back to the light that fell from the eye. In his childhood he had been made to memorize the longest chapter of the Bible, the 119th book of Psalms. There were 176 verses in this Psalm, twenty-two sections named according to the order of the twenty-two Hebrew alphabets, eight verses in each section. The 105th verse appealed now, and he re-read it: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” Excited, he realized his thoughts as a child had been shaped by the proposition that light was kin to feet, and until that moment when he envisioned a tributary walk, he hadn't been inclined to test the Psalmist's declaration he considered infallible. Besides, the primary raw materials for photography, as John Berger wrote, were light and time. His walk would presume that the light of Fosso's photographs guided his path.

In addition, there was another uncertainty. Earlier, he had understood that a hypothesis for his walk was "a pedestrian could cover territories charted in self-portraits of borrowed identities; that is, photographs charted territories, and the pedestrian walked through them." How could he prove this? He began from the most important point: Fosso's portraits, especially the 2008 series African Spirits, where he dressed himself as famous black heroes—Emperor Haile Salessie, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Kwame Nkrumah, Aime Cesaire, Muhammed Ali, Patrice Lumumba, and Leopold Sedar Senghor—were the photographer's way of conversing with the diversities of the African continent. The heroes ranged from leaders of independence struggles to prominent figures of the civil rights movement. Hence the territory charted stretched beyond the geographic "Africa" into a diaspora (he noticed that one of the words used to describe "diaspora" is "dispersion"). Essentially, Fosso carried in his body the complexity that comes with the word "Africa."

African Spirits, 2008

 © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Jean Marc Patras / Galerie

Jea slowly deciphered the enigma of his own thinking: each step he took in his tributary walk would take him farther from himself into the identity of others. Until like Fosso he would become an intimate stranger. When he walked into these dispersive identities ("dispersive" = "changing"), he would slowly achieve the intimacy Fosso had achieved. Fosso's intimacy was simply the result of a rigorous attempt to resemble the characters and heroes he adored. Jea's intimacy, on the other hand, would be a result of his walk into the territories that Fosso had covered in his childhood.

The Golf Player, from Tati, 1997

 © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Jean Marc Patras / Galerie

As Jea began to feel satisfied with the impulses of his walk, he felt uneasy about the point of it all. As a true follower of Fosso, he returned to the photographs that impelled him in the first place. He decided to follow a circular motion in the way he looked at them: He wouldn't follow them chronologically, or according to linearity with which they were presented. He would be intuitive about looking, and pay attention to any element that attracted him in a way different from other times he'd looked.

With this in mind, he noticed for the first time the wax fabric that Fosso wore in a number of the photographs. For instance in “Le chef qui a vendu l’Afrique aux colons", from Tati, 1997, where two patterns of the fabric are draped behind Fosso; in Le reve de mon Grand Pere he instead tied it around his waist, so that it became skirt-like. These were cloths developed by a Dutch company and sold in West Africa as authentic African clothing. By virtue of their widespread acceptance, the fabric was appropriated as cultural objects in Ghana and Nigeria, as well as in other West and Central African nations like Benin, Togo and Gabon. Jea was aware of the argument that the Dutch wax being sold as authentic African clothing was neo-colonialist. Yet when he looked at those self-portraits where Fosso wore them, the poses carried a character of intimacy that asserted the freedom of the wearer. Thus, a vision of African modernity emerged that didn't resort to polemics, but appreciated the way Africanness had come to be shaped –a product of a constant relationship with Europe. The point of his walk, as he now came to think, was to re-inscribe this vision of African modernity, so that although it was a continent of diverse people, intimacy could exist nonetheless.

Emmanuel Iduma is the author of Farad, a novel, and co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. In addition to writing fiction and art criticism, he works as a cultural operator, and holds administrative positions in Saraba Magazine, which he co-founded, and Invisible Borders.

Samuel Fosso, Le chef qui a vendu l’Afrique aux colons, from Tati, 1997

 © Samuel Fosso. Courtesy The Walther Collection and Jean Marc Patras / Galerie

Samuel Fosso

Sept. 11, 2014 - January 17, 2015


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