Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955 – 1989): Traces of Ecstacy

Grapes, 1989Grapes, 1989 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy Autograph ABP & Tiwani Contemporary, London.

This text was written for Photomonitor in response to Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955 – 1989) at Tiwani Contemporay, London, in collaboration with Autograph ABP (19 September 2014 – 1 November 2014). Published: 4 October 2014.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode articulated three forms of displacement: ‘On three counts I am an outsider: in matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation and in the sense of not having the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for’. [1] The question of displacement is never resolved. Historical tensions between those who appear certain of their citizenship (of their status in the world as social and political beings) and those who occupy spaces that are less sure, somewhat precarious, remain.

Much has been written about Fani-Kayode whose father, a prominent Yoruba political figure and leader, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, moved his family from Nigeria to Britain in 1966; fleeing violent events leading to the Biafran Civil War (1967-1970). Fani-Kayode was eleven at the time. He grew up in England and after he finished school he studied in the United States: at Georgetown University (Washington, DC.) and at the Pratt Institute (New York). Following an MFA in Fine Arts and Photography at Pratt, Fani-Kayode settled in Britain in 1983 and met his partner and collaborator the writer and artist Alex Hirst (1951-1992). Olu Oguibe positions Fani-Kayode as one of a generation of Nigerian born artists, who during the course of the late 1980s, ‘began to register their presence in the art world, especially in the metropolises of the west’. [2]

The retrospective exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary marks the 25thanniversary of Fani-Kayode’s death and is staged in partnership with Autograph ABP which the artist co-founded in 1988. In 2011, at Rivington Place, Autograph ABP curated the first major exhibition of Fani-Kayode’s work in the United Kingdom since 1995. Fani-Kayode was Autograph ABP’s first Chair and the retrospective at Tiwani Contemporary is curated by current director Mark Sealy and Renée Mussai. Fani-Kayode was active in helping shape critical discourses about race and sexuality in 1980s Britain, and Autograph ABP is actively engaged in researching, archiving and making visible cultural and visual histories (and experiences) which have been excised and obscured by official historical and visual practices. [3] In his text ‘Traces of Ecstasy’ Fani-Kayode voiced concerns that continue to be relevant to present day debates and struggles over history and memory: ‘An awareness of history has been of fundamental importance in the development of my creativity. The history of Africa and of the Black race has been constantly distorted’. [4]

Nothing To Lose XII (Bodies of Experience), 1989Nothing to Lose XII (Bodies of Experience), 1989 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy Autograph ABP & Tiwani Contemporary, London.

Oguibe comments on Fani-Kayode’s ‘activist devotion to the politics of race and sexuality’ combined with ‘a sophisticated understanding of the aesthetics of religious eroticism’. [5] Kobena Mercer famously describes this impetus in Fani Kayode’s work as ‘eros and diaspora’. [6] Stuart Hall’s essay ‘Black Artists in Britain: Three “Moments” in Post-War History’ (2006) is crucial to a historical understanding of Fani-Kayode’s relevance to histories of twentieth century art and photography in Britain and the experiences of immigration, exile, and displacement that underpin significant aspects of it. [7] Hall draws out the diaspora’s fractured relationship to notions of home and the African continent. Fani-Kayode is one of the artists, of the 1980s, that Hall situates within a ‘new Pan-African diasporic imaginary’ that ‘surfaces for a time, redeeming through image and sound the breaches and terrors of a broken history’. [8]

Fani-Kayode’s highly staged photographs of male bodies suggest many visual histories, which cross European and African modes of representation and iconographies (and the historical dialogues that exist between them). The exhibition at Tiwani, which is thoughtfully and beautifully curated, includes large-scale works in highly-saturated colour reminiscent of histories of European painting: these sensuous photographs deploy the iconography of biblical and mythological characters (bacchanalian wreaths, the erotic and religious symbolism of fruit and the imagery associated with depictions of Christ in art). These works embody the erotic charge present in the depiction of the male body in European painting; which has been the subject of art historical inquiries attentive to histories of masculinities and their relationship to sexuality and desire.

The exhibition also includes smaller black and white works which are highly stylised and suggest cultural and private rituals, symbols and rites of passage that relate to and perhaps displace (or re-imagine and transform) culturally specific meanings and practices. Other works invite a dialogue with Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), a connection that has been made, in relation to Fani-Kayode’s work, and critiqued. The work of both artists suggest dialogues with the fantasies and performances of twentieth century commercial, erotic and fashion photography, and its idealised, stylised language. Their photographs deliberately displace the still ubiquitous heteronormative view of the world that holds itself up as a stable centre.

Fani-Kayode’s work enters into other kinds of dialogues however to do with the politics and tensions of 1980s Thatcherite Britain, race, sexuality and the diasporic experience. He deliberately stages counter-narratives to (what he describes as) ‘current attitudes of the British Government towards Black people, women, homosexuals – in short, anyone who represents otherness’.[9] He writes: ‘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’. [10]

RFK-13_600_873Sonponnoi, 1987 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy Autograph ABP & Tiwani Contemporary, London. 

An important aspect of Fani-Kayode’s work is its relationship to his Yoruba heritage and culture: visual imagery, iconography and spirituality. ‘As an African working in a western medium, I try to bring out the spiritual dimension in my pictures so that concepts of reality become ambiguous and are open to reinterpretation. This requires what Yoruba priests and artists call a ‘technique of ecstasy’. [11] Fani-Kayode writes about the importance of the mask to spiritual as opposed to material realities, and this is certainly of importance to the many images of masks, and performances around masking, in his photographs. [12] Within the African continent itself much has been written on historical practices related to masks and their significance to performance practices that, for example, relate to rites of passage, spiritual transformation, and the indistinct lines between the living and ancestral spirits. One of the small black and white photographs, at Tiwani, titledSonponnoi (1987) invokes one of the many deities or Orisha who rule over the natural world and are marked in particular ways. [13] Sonponnoi is the Orisha god of smallpox, and despite his power represents the marginal or the outcast. In Nigeria shrines to Sonponnoi are embellished with spots which Fani-Kayode invokes here. In Sonponnoi three illuminated candles are held before the subject’s genitalia, suggesting associations with spirituality, rituals and rites of passage.

This retrospective of Fani Kayode’s work is also important to narratives about African art, and its histories, which are also histories of circulation, and cultural exchange, across multiple geographies. Tiwani Contemporary and Autograph ABP maintain close links to the African continent and have a collaborative relationship with the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. Earlier this year Iziko South African National Gallery (Cape Town) hosted the retrospective currently at Tiwani. In Nigeria, (Fani-Kayode’s birthplace) same-sex relationships are criminalised, and homophobia and related violence are visible in debates about sexuality in that country, and discussions amongst the African diaspora more broadly. Indeed, today his work might be seen in relation to the visual activism of artists working in the arena of LGBTI rights such as the South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Although Muholi’s documentary style (which emphasises women) differs from Fani-Kayode’s highly staged tableaux, important political debates around sexuality and photography (related to the African continent and its diaspora) might be opened up. Fani-Kayode’s work has ongoing significance, and this retrospective needs to be seen.

Dan Mask, 1989Dan Mask, 1989 © Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy Autograph ABP & Tiwani Contemporary, London.

Endnotes

[1] Fani-Kayode, R. ‘Traces of Ecstasy’, available on-line: http://www.autograph-abp-shop.co.uk/files/RFK_Traces_of_Ecstacy_1988.pdf.  Published in Ten-8, no. 28, 1988:36.

[2] Oguibe, O. ‘Finding a Place: Nigerian Artists in the Contemporary Art World’. Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 30-41, p.31.

[3] About Autograph ABP: http://autograph-abp.co.uk/who-we-are

[4] Fani-Kayode, R., ‘Traces of Ecstasy’, 1988.

[5] Oguibe, O., ‘Finding a Place’, 1999, p.35.

[6] Mercer, K. ‘Eros and Diaspora’. In Fani-Kayode, R.; Hirst, A., Sealy, M., Pivin, J.L (eds) Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst, Paris: Editions Revue Noire, 1997.

[7] Hall, S. ‘Black Artists in Britain: Three “Moments” in Post-War History’,History Workshop Journal, No. 61, Spring, 2006, pp. 1-24.

[8] Hall, S., ‘Black Artists in Britain’, 2006, p.18.

[9] Fani-Kayode, R. ‘Traces of Ecstasy’, 1988.

[10] Ibid.

[11] ] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See: http://www.autograph-abp-shop.co.uk/prints/rfk-sonponnoi

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