Émile-Samory Fofana’s tribute to West African football fans

Mogo té sé, Allah dé bé sé 001. All images © Émile-Samory Fofana, courtesy of Oof Gallery

When Émile-Samory Fofana started his Champions League Koulikoro series four years ago, it was a turning point in his creative career. “It’s the project that first drew me to photography,” he tells CR. “Before that, I mainly worked in video, but I wanted to create a specific work and photography was the best way to put these images in perspective, side by side. I knew very early on that I wanted to make a book out of it.”

The work highlights the presence of typically European football clubs that have become brands in different parts of the world, through football shirts worn on the streets of Mali, Senegal and Guinea. But it’s not about congratulating these clubs on their widespread appeal; Instead, his photography shows how fans around the world create myths and reputations that give to those clubs as much as vice versa.

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Some of the project’s photographs appear anthropological and documentary, while others are stylized and surreal. “In the beginning I took photos with a big camera and people posed in front of their apartment, for example. I quickly felt that something was missing, that I needed to photograph people in real, non-staged situations in order to make a real work out of it,” he explains.

Instead, he started taking pictures of people with his cell phone, partly due to local circumstances. “By taking photos with my iPhone, I can make people feel more comfortable. Although you don’t really feel it in the capital, Mali is in a conflict zone, which sometimes makes it difficult to take pictures with the camera.” Crucially, his informal camera choices gave his work a different tone and allowed him to capture images from his scooter in the Shooting in traffic and at markets or at concerts, he tells us.

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His work is on view at the Oof Gallery, Tottenham Hotspur, north London, as part of the gallery’s summer solo exhibition season, and at the Design Museum, London in the Designing the Beautiful Game exhibition.

At Oof, Fofana has created an additional exhibition collaging fake football shirts. It subverts the perception of counterfeit pieces as less counterfeit goods and instead turns them into a celebration of global football fandom. “It was interesting for me to show some bootlegs in a showroom associated with a big club. I’m not concerned with the value or the authenticity, but with the object itself. There is something special and fun about fake football shirts,” says Fofana.

Installation view in the Oof Gallery

“There are incredible pieces that emerge from the bootleg industry, with unique logos, details and even collar shapes that are different from the originals and add something different,” he points out. “I’ve seen a lot of Tottenham shirts have nine stars on the logo, or Arsenal misspelled ‘Arsanel’. When you see ‘Rooney’ on a FC Barcelona jersey there is a fictional aspect, like you’re fantasizing about a transfer that will never happen. It’s as if the market could create its own mythology.”

Fofana’s work also speaks to the global machinations of football fandom and the broader network of markets they create and rely on. He points out that when Dutch team Ajax recently reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, he saw shirts popping up all over the streets, “not necessarily because people wanted to wear them,” he says, but because of the flow of imports and exports at national level.

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And then there are the unofficial collaborations between luxury brands and high-profile European teams, “like Manchester City x Louis Vuitton, Juventus x Gucci, PSG x Chanel, that I’ve seen in Bamako’s markets,” he says. “This is Champions League Koulikoro, photos that make us wonder how these kits ended up there.”

The bootlegs and portraits exhibited at Oof create a ‘dialogue’ between different media and between his earliest and current works. “My working methods have evolved over the past four years that I’ve been working on the project and it was important to me to create an installation,” he explains, adding that the location of the Oof gallery is of particular importance meaning is. “The fact that the gallery is in a stadium and has that connection with Tottenham fans and English football was perfect for me. Something that really makes this project stand out: how West African football fans are a part of European football. It’s kind of a tribute.”

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Émile-Samory Fofana’s work is on view at the Oof Gallery until July 3 and at the Design Museum until August 29; @emilesamory

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