Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

"Both aesthetically and ethically, I seek to translate my rage and my desire into new images which will undermine conventional perceptions and which may reveal hidden worlds." 
– Rotimi Fani-Kayode

This week, as our celebration of black history month continues, we have the privilege of looking at another incredible black queer person in the queer community’s history: Rotimi Fani-Kayode. As with many of the people, we write about, Rotimi was an artist. A photographer, more specifically, whose work was revolutionary for his time and remains so today.

Fani-Kayode lived in Nigeria for the first twelve years of his life but was eventually forced to leave because of his father, Chief Babaremilekun Adetokunboh Fani-Kayode, who was a prominent member of the Yoruba family. A civil war in Nigeria put him and his family in danger. 

So as a refugee, Fani-Kayode entered the U.K. and went to British private schools to receive his secondary education. He then went for his B.A. at the Pratt Institute in New York City, earning his MFA in photography and arts. While he was there, he met Robert Mapplethorpe, another photographer, who would become a large influence in Fani-Kayode’s work. As Fani-Kayode worked, his reputation grew. His photographs were exploring the experiences of black queer men in a way that had been largely unseen before. 

While there had been black queer men in the community, they were most often seen in works that objectified them, and Fani-Kayodes work directly addresses this problem. Considering his work was not made for white people’s consumption, and the writer of this article is a white person, we will step back and let others describe it. 

First, we look to Bisimi Alimi, a gay rights activist, and friend of the man himself. About Fani-Kayode, he said “His work epitomized not just the reality of being gay, but of being a black gay man. It challenged the whole concept of black male masculinity and the importance of body empowerment. Rotimi's work broke down all the barriers." 

But the voice that is most important to look at in the discussion of Fani-Kayode’s work is the man himself. In an essay he wrote a year before his death, he describes his work more eloquently than anyone else ever could:

“In African traditional art, 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. My reality is not the same as that which is often presented to us 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.'

Both aesthetically and ethically, I seek to translate my rage and my desire into new images which will undermine conventional perceptions and which may reveal hidden worlds. Many of the images are seen as sexually explicit - or more precisely, homosexually explicit. I make my pictures homosexual on purpose. Black men from the Third World have not previously revealed either to their own peoples or to the West a certain shocking fact: they can desire each other. Some Western photographers have shown that they can desire Black males (albeit rather neurotically).

But the exploitative mythologising of Black virility on behalf of the homosexual bourgeoisie is ultimately no different from the vulgar objectification of Africa which we know at one extreme from the work of Leni Riefenstahl and, at the other from the ‘victim’ images which appear constantly in the media. It is now time for us to reappropriate such images and to transform them ritualistically into images of our own creation. For me, this involves an imaginative investigation of Blackness, maleness, and sexuality, rather than more straightforward reportage.”

This, of course, is only an excerpt, and the whole essay discussing his work is much too large to add to our article, but we encourage everyone to take a look at it if they can. It is truly fantastic writing and touches on some interesting topics that he has a unique perspective on. We are truly very lucky as a community to have had his voice, and to be able to see glimpses of his perspective through his work and words, and that reality is reflected in his relative success. His work is still touring today, and one of the organizations he co-founded, ABP, still works to promote and protect his work, and the work of his life partner, Alex Hirst.

In his success, a problem becomes very clear. Though he, himself, very clearly fought against his culture being made to seem exotic and used to push stereotypes about Nigeria, his work and life are often used to push forward that phenomenon still. Many sources when discussing his life focus on his displacement from Nigeria, and he discusses this as well, saying “It has been 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. The distance is even greater as a result of my having left Africa as a refugee over 20 years ago.” 

Despite this, he always talks of Nigeria fondly, both accepting that it has problems and embracing the culture, using many symbols from Nigeria in his work. But in discussing this, many articles and tellings of his life portray his life in the U.K. and time in America as some haven from the homophobia found in Nigeria, acting like these places were so far ahead of Nigeria in terms of recognizing queer rights, which is not reality. To make sure that this perception does not appear here, we are going to discuss some dates, which is usually the worst part of learning about history, but please bear with us. The meaning of them will become very clear.

Fani-Kayode left Nigeria and moved to England in 1966, and lived there on and off until he died of a heart attack in 1989. He also spent a bit of his life in America from 1976 to 1983. In England, while “homosexual acts” were technically decriminalized in 1967, there were conditions. The age of consent that was different from heterosexual relationships, and most interestingly, they strictly enforced the privacy of all “homosexual acts,” which restricted such acts from happening in hotel rooms, or while anyone else was in the house. In America, homosexual acts have only been legal nationwide since 2003. 

It is also important to note that the legally enforced homophobia that exists in Nigeria is a direct result of colonialism. We can see that in fact, that same sex activity has only been illegal since 1901. We can see that homosexuality existed in Nigeria before then. In fact, one of the languages spoken in Nigeria, Yoruba, has a word for MSM (men who have sex with men), adofuro. A language wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have a word for something its speakers don’t know exists. Another term that is telling about the history of Nigeria’s treatment of queer people is yan daudu; a Hausa term used to describe men who act what in their culture at the time was considered feminine, who are considered as the wives of other men. 
So the Western world has absolutely no place to think of themselves as a “haven” for queer people during that time. 

When people discuss the homophobia that exists in Nigeria and somehow forget to mention that England and America were by no means innocent of this moral failure, they are misrepresenting the reality of the situation. 

That is not to say that Nigeria is by any means safe for queer people, but the narrative of Fani-Kayode moving from the frying pan into the soft grass is wrong. It is more like he moved from the frying pan into hot coals from where the fire had once been because the fire is what heated the pan in the first place. Just because it is technically out, does not mean it is safe to step there.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Kathleen E. (August 18, 2015) Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989) Retrieved February 15 2017

Holland C. (May 10, 2012) Rotimi Fani-Kayode: ‘Nothing to Lose’. Retrieved February 15, 2017

Jennifer S. (September 18, 2014) A Retrospective Of Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s “Black, African, Homosexual Photography” In London. Retrieved February 15, 2017

Rotimi F. (1988) Rotimi Fani-Kayode: Traces of Ecstasy. Retrieved February 15, 2017