Fani-Kayodé's photographs have been exhibited internationally since 1985, and are represented in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Artur Walther Foundation dedicated to the research and exhibition of photography and video art (in New York and Neu-Ulm, Germany) and numerous other public and private collections internationally. Many of his works were co-authored with his late partner, photographer Alex Hirst.
As writer and critic Kobena Mercer observed, Fani-Kayodé was a leading voice among black British artists during the flourishing queer culture of the 1980s. Influenced by his experience as an African exile in Europe and by his Yorùbá religious heritage, Fani-Kayodé created works in which “the black male body served as a means of expressing the boundaries between erotic fantasy and ancestral spiritual values.”
The following is excerpted from an essay presented by Jean Marc Patras Gallerie, Paris, in conjunction with their solo exhibition of the artist’s work in 2007:
“Fani-Kayodeʼs art-making was intensely personal and politically engaged…During his graduate studies, the artist began making iconic and dramatic color portrait photographs of himself and other black men, nude or dressed in traditional Yoruba clothing. Such images laid the important formal and critical framework for his later photographic works, which explored issues of race, masculinity, homoeroticism and nationality, often involving a sophisticated and ambiguous mix of African and Western iconography.”
In a career spanning only six years, Fani-Kayodé’s photographic scenarios – part autobiographical, part mythical – constitute a profound narrative of sexual and cultural difference, seminal in their exploration of the postcolonial, diaspora, and identity. In the artist’s words:
“My identity has been constructed from my own sense of otherness, whether cultural, racial or sexual. The three aspects are not separate within me. Photography is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography therefore — Black, African, homosexual photography — which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms.” –Rotimi Fani-Kayodé, 1988.
The photograph: Dan Mask
Fani-Kayodé incorporated African masks into a number of his compositions. In this portrait, the artist supports a Dan mask in a reverential pose that obscures his own face. He draws strategically on this object’s formal recognizability as an African mask, as well as on the spiritual work it was intended to perform by its maker.
“In African traditional art,” he wrote, “the mask does not represent a material reality; rather, the artist strives to approach a spiritual reality in it through images suggested by human and animal forms. I think photography can aspire to the same imaginative interpretations of life...It is now time for us to re-appropriate such images and transform them into images of our own creation.”
In doing so, the work becomes both a nod to and critique of modernist primitivism, an enduring paradigm that he re-inscribed with his own renderings of the self.
Suggestions for further reading:
Bailey, David A., and Stuart Hall, editors, Ten.8 - Critical Decade: Black British Photography in the 80ʼs. 3, no. 3 (1992).
Boffin, Tess and Sunil Gupta, editors, Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology, London: Rivers Oram Press, 1990.
Bright, Deborah, editor, The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, London: Routledge, 1998.
Doy, Gen, Black Visual Culture: modernity and postmodernity, London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000.
“Exposure,” British Journal of Photography, 132 (January 11) 1985.
Fani-Kayodé, Rotimi, Communion, London: Autograph, 1996.
Fani-Kayodé, Rotimi, Black Male/White Male, London: Gay Menʼs Press, 1987.
Fani-Kayodé, Rotimi, “Traces of Ecstasy,” Ten-8, no. 28, 1988.
Hall, Stuart and Mark Sealy, Different, London: Phaidon Press, 2001.
Mercer, Kobena, Welcome to the jungle: new positions in Black cultural studies, New York: Routledge, 1994.
Mercer, Kobena, “Mortal Coil: Eros and Diaspora in the Photographs of Rotimi Fani-Kayodé ” in OverExposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography, editor Carol Squires, New Press: New York, 1999.
Oguibe, Olu, “A Man Without: Tribute to the Photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayodé ,” West Africa, (July 15), 1991.
Oguibe, Olu, “Finding a place: Nigerian artists in the contemporary art world,” Art Journal, 58, no. 2 (Summer), 1999.
Rotimi Fani-Kayodé , Photographer (1955-1989): Retrospective, London: 198 Gallery, 1990.
Sealy, Mark and Jean Loup Pivin, eds, Rotimi Fani-Kayodé and Alex Hirst, Paris: Editions Revue Noire, 1997.
Tawadros, Gilane and Sarah Campbell, Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes, London; inIVA Books, 2003.
Zaya, Octavio, “On Three Counts I Am an Outsider: The Work of Rotimi Fani-Kayodé ,” NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, no. 4, (Summer), 1996.
Text and bibliography by Allyson Purpura, senior curator and curator of Global African Art, 2018