Fine Art, Interviews, Portrait

Rotimi Fani-Kayode – The Art of Exile

© Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy Autograph ABP/Tiwani Contemporary

Rotimi Fani-Kayode died 25 years ago, exiled for the crime of homosexuality. As Nigeria adopts new anti-gay legislation, his legacy lives on

In January 2014, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed a new law that allows his courts to punish same-sex “amorous relationships”, along with a raft of other anti-gay legislation that carries penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment. Gay organisations – from advocacy groups to nightclubs – are now banned, and “aiding and abetting” a gay man or woman can carry the same punishment. Landlords, family, neighbours, fiends and employers of gay people are now seen as criminals in the eyes of Nigerian law. And in those areas to the north of the country that have adopted some form of Shari’a law, corporate punishments have included whippings, and could extend to execution.

He may not be as outspoken as Simon Lokodo, ‘ethics and integrity’ minister of Uganda, who recently responded “why would I eat my own feaces?” when asked whether he would every consider kissing another man, but Goodluck is clearly a homophobe. However, these remorseless measures were not likely passed out of a sense of conviction, rather it’s because they’re popular.

Because Nigeria is not alone. Across Africa, homosexuality is increasingly viewed as a depraved, immoral act. It remains a taboo, silently seen but only discussed by conservatives with voices of righteous condemnation. Gay Nigerians, as a result, compare their lives to the black men and women living under South Africa’s Apartheid, or slaves in America’s southern states; denied the most basic human rights, victim to the most remorseless social bigotry, mortally threatened by a state unafraid to use its invasive power.

“I make my pictures homosexual on purpose”

Goodluck should spend a quiet few moments considering the imagery of his countryman Rotimi Fani-Kayode. He might reflect on the life of a gay Nigerian man who died 25 years ago, but whose values are irrepressible. Rotimi Fani-Kayode was one of the first Africans to portray his gay identity through photography, once writing: “I make my pictures homosexual on purpose”. Yet his photos are not a gratuitous response to the establishment; they are layered and contradictory, emotionally raw and breathtakingly physical. They consider and challenge us, yet they also openly plea for our acceptance.

“Rotimi opened up a new space of critical enquiry around the representational politics of the black body, and the exploration of cultural and sexual difference through staged photography,” says Renée Mussai, who exhibited a show of Rotimi’s work at the Tiwani gallery in Fitzrovia, London, last year. “His work is as seductive, transgressive and relevant now, as it was when he passed away,” says Mussai, who is curator and head of archive at Autograph ABP in east London, the organisation that Fani-Kayode co-founded a year before his death.

Born in 1955 in Lagos to a prominent Yoruba family, Fani-Kayode was educated in English in Christian Schools, and was forced to leave his country to escape the Biafran War, arriving in Brighton as an 11-year-old refugee in 1966. Homosexuality had been legalised four years earlier in the UK (though some Nigerian historians, it’s important to recognise, relate Britain’s colonial influence to Africa’s homophobic attitudes). When he came out, his family rejected him, and Fani-Kayode left Britain to study Fine Art and Economics at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He became a friend of Robert Mappelthorpe, a touchstone influence.

Meeting Mappelthorpe

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For both of them, photography was not just an artform. It wasn’t just a mode of expression or an exorcism of emotion. His photography was, he wrote, “a weapon, if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms”.

A weapon with a fine blade, and forged from many experiences. “Rotimi’s photography is quietly transgressive,” says Maria Varnava, director of Tiwani Contemporary. “His work forces the viewer to consider the space beyond the obvious: beyond homoeroticism and simplistic readings of Africanness.” She refers to one of his most iconic works, the 1987 photograph, Bronze Head. “It is as much about the loss of wholeness, the fragmented body, a break with the past, a diasporic and sexual exile as it is about the faith of what this ambivalent new state will create.”

A loss of wholeness

This complex aesthetic comes from an identity defined by loss and a sense of being an outsider, she says, pointing to a quote by Steven Nelson in Transcendence in the Photographs of Rotimi Fani-Kayode: “To experience exile – be it cultural, familiar, or sexual – is often to experience an existence that is constituted by a loss of wholeness, one defined by its fragmentary nature. To experience exile is to retain, in the words of Thomas Paved, ‘a faith in the homecoming’.”

Fani-Kayode died in Brixton, south London, in December 1989, having returned to live in the UK six years earlier; while recovering from an AIDS-related illness he suffered a lethal heart attack. He was 39 years old, an artist still very much discovering himself, still far from the peak of his creative endeavour. It is a tragedy he died so young; what a powerful visual voice he is, and how powerful would he have been, in the time of men like Goodluck Jonathan.

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