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

The artist’s photos made in the streets of Mali, Guinea and Senegal, along with a new installation celebrating bootleg football shirts, come together to tell an intricate story of global football fandom

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

When Émile-Samory Fofana began his series Champions League Koulikoro four years ago, it became the turning point in his creative trajectory. “It’s the project that first drew me towards photography,” he tells CR. “Before that, I was working mainly in video, but I wanted to create a specific body of work and photography was the best way to put these images in perspective, one next to the other. Very early on, I knew I wanted to turn it into a book too.”

The work underlines the presence of typically European football clubs-turned-brands in different parts of the world by way of football shirts worn in the streets of Mali, Senegal and Guinea. Yet it isn’t about congratulating those clubs on their widespread appeal; instead, his photography illustrates how fans around the world create myths and reputations that give as much to those clubs as the other way around.

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Some photographs in the project feel anthropological and documentarian, others are stylised and surreal. “At the start I took photos with a big camera and I’d pose people in front of where they lived, for example. I quickly started to feel like something was missing, that to make this into a proper body of work I’d have to take photos of people in real, non-staged situations,” he explains.

He began to photograph people with his phone instead, partly down to local circumstances. “Shooting with my iPhone allows me to make people feel more comfortable. Even if you can’t really feel it in the capital, Mali is located in a conflict zone, sometimes making shooting with a camera difficult.” Crucially, his informal camera choice lent a different tone to the work he was making, allowing him to shoot images from his scooter in traffic and in markets or at concerts, he tells us.

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His work is on display at Oof Gallery, based in the Tottenham Hotspur ground in north London, as part of the gallery’s summer season of solo exhibitions, as well as at the Design Museum in London’s show Designing the Beautiful Game.

At Oof, Fofana has created an additional exhibit that collages together bootleg football shirts. It subverts the perception of bootlegged pieces as lesser counterfeit goods, instead turning them into a celebration of global football fandom. “It was interesting for me to show some bootlegs in an exhibition space related to a big club. For me it’s not about the value or authenticity, but the object itself. Football jerseys that are fake have something special and entertaining about them,” Fofana says.

Installation view at Oof Gallery

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

Fofana’s body of work also speaks to the global machinations of football fandom, and the wider network of markets they create and rely upon. He points out that when Dutch team Ajax recently reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, he saw shirts appearing everywhere in the streets, “not necessarily because people wanted to wear them”, he says, but because of the flow of imports and exports determined on a national scale.

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And then there are the unofficial collaborations between luxury brands and top-flight European teams, “such as Manchester City x Louis Vuitton, Juventus x Gucci, PSG x Chanel that I’ve seen in Bamako’s markets”, he says. “That’s what Champions League Koulikoro is, photos where we ask ourselves how these jerseys ended up there.”

The bootleg shirts and the portraits on show at Oof create a “dialogue” between different mediums, and between his earliest and current work. “My working methods have evolved over the course of the past four years I’ve been working on the project and it was important for me to create an installation,” he explains, adding that the location of Oof gallery is of particular significance. “The fact that the gallery is in a stadium and has this relationship with Tottenham supporters and English football was perfect for me. It’s something this project really highlights: how West African football fans are a part of European football. It’s like a form of tribute.”

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

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