Rotimi Fani-Kayode Rage & Desire
Hales Project Room
Rotimi Fani-Kayode, "Four Twins", 1985, Gelatin silver print.
“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.”
“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 become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for. Such a position gives me the feeling of having very little to lose.”
-Rotimi Fani-Kayode, “Traces of Ecstasy,” Ten.8, No 28: Rage & Desire, 1988.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode: Rage & Desire, an exhibition to be presented at the Hales Project Room, New York, and organized in conjunction with Autograph ABP, London, will feature photographs from the mid-to-late1980s, some of which have never before been seen in New York.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955–1989) was born into a prominent Yoruba family in Lagos before moving to England following the 1966 outbreak of civil war in Nigeria. After a period of study in the United States—where he completed a BA and MFA in Fine Art at Georgetown University in Washington DC and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn respectively—Fani-Kayode returned to London in 1983, where he continued to live and work until the end of the decade. During his tragically brief six-year career, Fani-Kayode produced a complex body of photographic work, exploring themes of race, sexuality, spirituality, and the self. His masterfully staged and crafted portraits, sometimes quietly monochromatic and at other times rich in saturated color, stand as powerful, yet resolutely ambiguous, visual statements.
At the core of Fani-Kayode’s art is an important emphasis on difference and otherness. After fleeing Nigeria at the age of 12, he spent the majority of his life in exile. The status of “outsider” was one with which he identified on multiple fronts – from his geographic dislocation to the exclusion from his Nigerian heritage which he experienced as a result of his sexuality and the artistic career he had chosen – and which motivated him throughout his life. As a result, he was deeply involved both in the black British cultural movement and in the shifting landscape of the queer community throughout the 1980s, and he became a pioneering figure in the formation of a black gay cultural diaspora in the UK and the US.
The exhibition Rage & Desire focuses on a selection of Fani-Kayode’s black-and-white photographs from the 1980s. These images present intimate looks at his subjects, primarily black men, whose postures and interactions with objects, which act as extensions of their bodies, play with the duality between the hidden and the visible. Some images allude to Yoruba culture through the presence of clothing, objects, and masks to examine the place of cultural practices seemingly available to the artist from a distance. Others incorporate objects like tubing, which speaks to the idea of the umbilical cord as a connection to nourishment, and scissors, which threaten the violence of detachment. Both frank in their explicit depictions and tender in their sensuous treatment of the naked body, Fani-Kayode’s photographs are infused with a powerful subjectivity that distinguishes them from the sensationalist images of many of his predecessors and contemporaries. They are the singular contribution of an artist determined to transgress the boundaries imposed both on his life and his art. In his seminal essay “Traces of Ecstasy,” Fani-Kayode expressed this by describing his desire to reappropriate the “exploitative mythologizing of Black virility” in the work of so much Western art and “to transform them ritualistically into images of our own creation,” filled with reciprocal desire.
After returning to London in 1983, Fani-Kayode became the founding chair of the influential Association of Black Photographers (now known as Autograph ABP), where he was particularly central in spearheading a break with the prevailing dogma of documentary realism and in developing new aesthetic approaches that embraced a constructed mise-en-scène dense with symbolic imagery. Meanwhile, the devastation of the AIDS crisis loomed large over Fani-Kayode’s existence. The photographer’s work, thus imbued with the questions, joys, and sorrows that characterized his life, was pioneering at the time of its creation. And continuing to resonate with the political-cultural climate of today, it remains distinctly poignant.
To accompany the exhibition, Hales has published a catalogue featuring Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s essay “Traces of Ecstasy” and an original essay by art historian and critic William J Simmons.