September 12th, 2003
When the I Is the Subject, And It’s Always Changing
Let’s start the fall gallery season with a couple of welcomes. One is to Samuel Fosso, an African artist making a long overdue New York solo debut at Jack Shainman; the other to Lyle Ashton Harris, an American whose last one-man Manhattan show – a stunner – was in 1996, and who has new work at CRG.
Both are photographers, of roughly the same age. Both are black, which can be irrelevant to art but means something here. Both take their own bodies as the primary image in work that is personal without being autobiographical. Both, in different ways, emerged from the identity politics of the 1990’s, which helped bring Mr. Fosso’s already mature art to international attention, and helped Mr. Harris become the interesting artist he is.
Mr. Fosso was born in 1962 in a small village in Cameroon near the Nigerian border. In the years after the Biafran war, he moved without his family to the Central African Republic, where he still lives. At 13, in the city of Bangui, he was employed briefly as a photographer’s assistant and the same year opened a shop of his own, a portrait studio that in off hours became a one-man laboratory in self-portraiture.
You can spot what I take to be samples of Mr. Fosso’s professional wares – a row of photos of men, women and children high on a wall above a curtain – in the background of one of the early pictures at Shainman. More arresting, though, is the figure in the front of the curtain, the teenage artist himself posing, with the casual narcissim of a seasoned model, in a white T-shirt and briefs.
In another image from the same year – 1978 – he is dressed to the nines in bell bottoms, a tailored shirt, a size-too-small sports hat and silver-framed shades. As if to focus attention on his dandified, star-quality presence, he is framed by a half- dozen studio lamps that lean into the scene from the side like eager paparrazzi.
Mr. Fosso’s self-portraits from the 1970’s form the prodigious foundation for his continuing work in the genre, and they flow from a long line of African photo-portraiture by legendary practioners like Meissa Gaye and Salla Cassett in Senegal, Alex Agbaglo Acolatse in Togo, and Seydou Keita in Mali. None of these artists, however, produced more than a few self-portraits. In his insistent self-regard Mr. Fosso stands pretty much alone, while still making sense within a larger context.
Most portrait photographs, whether made in Bangui or New York, are to some degree documentary: they record how so-and-so looked at a certain age, in a certain year. At the same time, they are collaborative fictions. Sitters choose clothes and expressions that project an identity they wish to have, or wish to have preserved. The photographer, if he values his business, will enhance their illusions with suggested poses and props.
Mr. Fosso draws on all these devices in his self-portraits, but because he is in command on both sides of the camera, plays with them freely.
In what seems to be a sparely equipped studio, he mixes and remixes everything – décor, furniture, clothes, accessories – and constantly changes his pose. He stands; he sits. He preens, or peeks shyly out from behind a curtain. He looks away from the camera; he looks you straight in the eye.
Certain props seem so out-of-nowhere that you wonder what prompted their choice. Why a hooded ski parka, or that strange rattan chair? Maybe they just ended up being at hand, or maybe they were selected with care, the way his shirt and bellbottoms were. Those clothes weren’t pulled off the rack; they were copied by a local tailor, on request, from Western fashion magazines.
However calculated, though, Mr. Fosso’s work is an art of experiment, of trying things on, from sartorial styles to identities, moods and selves; in the years after the national independence movements, when Africa was simultaneously colonial and post-colonial, liberated and trapped. Mr. Fosso’s self-produced fashion shoots, performed for an audience of one, reflect all of that, as do his recent color pictures, which are more polished and public, its personas – for better or worse – more precisely defined.
At least one series, though, strips the sell-portrait down to its political core. In 1996, the city of Bangui emptied out in the face of civic violence, but Mr. Fosso stayed behind in the small studio where his negatives were stored. He was subjected to police abuse more than once, and his self-portraits from the time were a response to his plight.
In them, he is naked, a prisoner, huddled against a door, crouched in a packing carton, lying like a traumatized odalisque against a backdrop of mosquito netting, with wires snaking down like nooses. In each shot he looks as if he has been taken by surprise, intruded on, hurt. Fiction and real life meet with a new kind of power.
Much the same can be said of recent photographs by Mr. Harris, who was born in 1965 and is best known for his gender-bending tableaus of the 1990’s. Although his main focus of the last few years has been a series of serene but intense close-up portraits of family, friends and colleagues, at CRG he returns to something closer to his earlier emblematic, theatrical mode, in which he is a central performer.
He made the dozen large-format color Polaroids after spending a year on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. The series title, “Memoirs of Hadrian, refers both to the city and to Marguerite Yourcenar’s book of the same name, a fictional autobiography of the aging Roman emperor.
At the heart of the story is the figure of Antinous, Hadrian’s young lover, who drowned and was posthumously deified by imperial order. Their relationship, as described by Yourcenar, is a kind of power struggle from which neither can escape. Through age and status, Hadrian is the dominant, controlling partner. But to his own discomfort, he is also addicted to his lover’s physical beauty and un-Roman exoticism: Antinous is Greek by descent but with Asian blood, “like a drop of honey which clouds and perfumes a pure wine.”
Mr. Harris’s pictures, like Mr. Fosso’s, focus on a single figure, his own, in the role of a prizefighter for whom victory seems beyond reach. In images at once gorgeous and brutal, with a dried-blood sepia tint, he is shown locked in a white field between two black panels, his arms thrown open, his features battered to a dark mass.
Boxing has long been a kind of racial theater, with blacks cast as heroes, brutish villains and victims, exemplified in the triumphant career of Muhammad Ali, the ill-fated exploits of Mike Tyson and, turning to art, in collaborative paintings of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, in which the older white artist is shown delivering a knockout blow to his black protégé.
In those paintings, Basquiat is a clown, little more. Mr. Harris’s boxer, by contrast, is a magnetic, erotically charged figure even in defeat, with his body sliced to ribbons and shuddering across the picture plane. Four photomontages in the series suggest the teeming but disordered consciousness of a wounded brain, with visions swimming in and out of view: the faces of Malcolm X, the singer Grace Jones, newspaper sports pages, boxing gloves, a mouth guard.
The inclusion of a religious card printed for the funeral of Mr. Harris’ s grandfather ties the whole explicitly to the artist, as does the Jasper Johnsian imprint of his two hands pressed, palms outward, as if propping the photomontage up from behind or pushing it away.
Like most really stimulating art, Mr. Harris’s eludes clean readings. It is self-portraiture that is not quite self-portraiture, based on fiction that is not quite fiction. It raises questions about race, sexuality and history does so with formal élan, but insists on no answers.
If it has taken two decades of forced-march identity politics to produce such work, and to bring Mr. Fosso a wide audience, the trip has been worthwhile.