Rotimi Fani-Kayode's 'Nothing to Lose' (1989)
In January 2020, Emma McGarry was selected to provide a talk at The Photographer's Gallery as a part of their Viewpoints series. Each selected speaker was provided the opportunity to talk about one piece of their choice from the Feast For The Eyes exhibition (curated by Susan Bright and Denise Wolff). McGarry selected and spoke about the work of Rotimi-Fani Kayode from his series Nothing to Lose (1989).
When I was selected to provide a talk for The Photographer's Gallery, I already knew that an image from Cindy Sherman's Disaster Series (1986-1989) was on display as a part of the Feast For The Eyes exhibition. I visited the gallery with every intention of digesting Sherman's work face-to-face and expanding on the knowledge I had already gained when writing about her in my research paper. It wasn't until sitting in the gallery that I became intrigued by the photograph displayed next to Sherman's: a dark but colourful image depicting a nude, black male body, with fruit oozing from the man's crotch. I sat with the image for ten-to-fifteen minutes and had, what I can only describe as, a 'conversation' with both the work and the artist. It was then that I first became acquainted with the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode. I delved into some online research and read Photographs (1996) by him and his partner; Alex Hirst, and it suddenly became clear that there was much more to Rotimi Fani-Kayode than the one photograph I saw on display in London. Now, with the integral knowledge of the context behind Nothing To Lose XII (1989), I felt utterly compelled to speak about Fani-Kayode for the Viewpoints Series.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode was a British-Nigerian artist born in 1955, and came from a highly conservative family; his father was a notable priest and politician in Nigeria. With his family, he moved from Africa to the UK in the 1960's to flee from Nigerian civil war. He later followed his parents' wishes and moved to the US to study Economics, but later pursued his true passion for Fine Arts and gained an MFA from The Pratt Institute, New York. He described himself as an 'outsider on three counts': his sexuality, his cultural and geographical dislocation, but also not fulfilling the married and professional expectations of his traditional Yoruba parents. As a gay man bound to his ancestry and conservative upbringing, Fani-Kayode's homosexuality expectedly caused some tension between his roots and his sense of self. For me, Nothing To Lose XII (1989) demonstrates an exploration of identity: homosexuality, blackness, and dislocation. The work explores multi-faceted otherness through portraiture, something that my research paper 'How is self-portraiture used to explore, liberate and redefine identities encompassed by contemporary intersectional feminism?' explores in great detail. Fani-Kayode's work suddenly became an investigation into sexuality, racism, and colonialism, constantly exploring the tension between homosexuality and his ancestral spiritual values.
Nothing To Lose XII (1989) is a part of a much larger colour series of dye-destruction prints, which are currently stored in the V&A's collection. The images depict traditional Nigerian foods and herbs worn as garments - like regal head-dresses or crowns - as symbols of power and pride. These cultural symbolisms and iconographies are used in combination with styles from Western masters - such as Caravaggio - to critique visibility and transform the black body and identity into a political site. In this way, he uses his often marginalised voice to explore this multifaceted otherness and confront his feelings of being an outsider. For the viewer, it is difficult to visually separate the oozing fruit from his body: is it blood? Is it sweat? Again, he references this tension between ancestral spiritual values and homo-erotic fantasy, as well as providing commentary on objectification and consumption of the black body.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode died from AIDS related illness in 1989, the same year Nothing to Lose XII (1989) was formed: he lived a short but impactful life. His activist pursuits increased the volume of otherwise silenced conversations surrounding homosexuality, race, and spirituality. His work is especially significant because of the political context in which it was produced, whereby homosexuality was brutally punished and its' voices forcibly suppressed.
After digesting Rotimi Fani-Kayode's work and its context, it became apparent that the work had achieved all that it set out to do, and more. The use of the nude, black, homosexual male body dripped in culturally significant foods, creates a visual narrative that challenges and explores ancestry, as well as archaic societal attitudes towards race and sexuality. Through the large-scale, vibrant images, the viewer has no choice but to communicate with the work; the viewer has no choice but to listen to the work. The viewer is thus presented with expression, ambiguity - and perhaps even confrontation for some. Fani-Kayode's work is comparable to that of Zanele Muholi; a self-defined queer, Visual Activist from South Africa. This comparison is based not only on visual connections of drama and symbolism, but also in political and activist intention: to liberate the voice of black LGBTQ+ identities. This contemporary comparison only further demonstrates how significant Fani-Kayode, his work, and its message continues to be.
To conclude my Viewpoints Series talk, I encouraged the audience to take some time to thoroughly experience Nothing To Lose XII (1989). I hope they did. I hope you do, too, reader. Have your own conversation with the work; have your own conversation with Rotimi Fani-Kayode; hear his voice.