1. He was co-founder of Autograph
Rotimi Fani-Kayode was one of the founders of Autograph ABP – a charity that works internationally in photography, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. The organisation was founded by Fani-Kayode alongside a number of other photographers, and was instrumental in developing the careers of many prominent non-white photographers in the UK. Since its foundation the organisation has grown and changed; in 2002, the board changed its name to Autograph ABP, and its focus has widened, but it remains the leading organisation using photography to preserve and nurture a visual representation of Britain’s cultural history and its diverse communities.
2. His work is iconic
Fani-Kayode’s work fused three distinct but not necessarily unlikely elements – an exploration of sensuality and homosexuality, masculinity and the male body, alongside a powerful exploration of Yoruba religious iconography. He worked with the white American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe early in his career, and though influenced by him, Fani-Kayode went on to develop his own photographic signature drawing on a long tradition of African religious iconography intimately tied to the body.
3. He was an exile
Fani-Kayode was the son of one of Nigeria’s most prominent post-independence leaders, Fani-Kayode, also known as Fani-power. He was elected Deputy-Leader of Nigeria’s Western Region in 1963, so when the civilian government was toppled by a military coup in 1966 he was forced into exile, fleeing Nigeria with his family and moved to Brighton. Rotimi, who was the youngest son of the family grew up in Brighton, and schooled at various private schools before studying at Georgetown University and Pratt Institute.
4. He was an openly gay man
The 1980s were a mad, bad and dangerous time to be gay in the UK – Section 28, a notorious bill was signed into law by the then conservative government – and social attitudes were often implacably hostile. Talk less of being a gay, black and African emigre – but Fani-Kayode was all these things, and drew on them to create his work. Speaking about this he said:
“It was my destiny to end up as an artist with a sexual taste for other young men. As a result of this, a certain distance has necessarily developed between myself and my origins. This distance is even greater as a result of my having left Africa as a refugee over twenty years ago.
On three counts I am an outsider: in matters of sexuality, in terms of geography and cultural dislocation, and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for.
My reality is not the same as that which is often presented in western photographs. 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” – Rotimi Fani-Kayode, ‘Traces of Ecstasy’, 1996
5. His work is part of a long tradition of Yoruba art and creativity
Fani-Kayode’s work involves a very singular exploration of Yoruba identity – including a focus on the metaphorical meaning of Yoruba gods. For example in (???) the picture shows a man siting on a head – it’s actually a pictographic representation of two physical as well as metaphorical concepts. (Ori) and (Idi) – profanely, or literally they mean: Head and Ass – metaphorically they mean origin/destiny – and Fundamental . In the picture, Fani-Kayode juxtaposes these two physical principles, in a way that is certainly jarring to the observer. The Yoruba concept of ori is certainly talked about and articulated but he suggests perhaps in this picture that there is an equally fundamental principle attached to the nether parts of the body – meanings that previous Yoruba society were perhaps more comfortable with?
Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955 – 1989) – A Solo retrospective is at Tiwani Contemporary from 18th September till Sat 1st November.
Dele Meiji Fatunla