In January 2020, I 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). My selected piece was the work of Rotimi-Fani Kayode from his series Nothing to Lose (1989), and here I present a written account of my viewpoint.
When I was selected to provide a talk for The Photographer's Gallery about a singular piece of work in the Feast for The Eyes exhibition, I already had Cindy Sherman's Disaster Series (1986-1989) in mind. I visited the gallery with every intention of digesting Sherman's work face-to-face and expanding on my previous knowledge of her. It wasn't until sitting in the gallery that I became intrigued by the photograph displayed next to Sherman's: a dark but saturated image depicting a nude, black male with fruit oozing from his crotch; it’s plaque reading ‘Rotimi Fani-Kayode’. I asked myself: who is he? And why have I not heard of him before? After a 10-15-minute conversation with the work, I became acquainted with Rotimi Fani-Kayode, and continued to I delve into some online research. I bought and read the book Photographs (1996) by him and his partner Alex Hirst, and suddenly Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s active investigation into identity began to unravel. After many more hours spent reading his books and tunnelling my way through google search results, I felt utterly compelled to speak about Fani-Kayode for the Viewpoints Series.
For context, Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in 1955 and grew up in Nigeria with his family and father; a notable Nigerian priest and politician. Shortly after, Rotimi and his family fled to the UK in the 1960s, where they established a new life, and he later fulfilled his parents’ wishes of studying Economics in the US. Much to the disapproval of his conservative family, Rotimi eventually went on to pursue his true passion for the arts and gained an MFA from The Pratt Institute, New York. As a gay man bound to his ancestry and perhaps orthodox upbringing, Fani-Kayode's homosexuality undoubtedly caused tensions and conflictions within his personal understanding of his own identity. It was through his art that he began to describe himself as an 'outsider on three counts': his sexuality, his cultural and geographical dislocation, but also by not fulfilling the marital and professional expectations of his traditional Yoruba parents. He was most active as an artist between 1982 and 1989: the era of the AIDS epidemic, Thatcherite England and Section 28, and consequently the peak of dominant homophobic narratives and discrimination in the UK. This context only intensified the on-going cultural, historical and political significance of his work. His short but impactful life thus became an activist pursuit on both a personal and political level, working to amplify otherwise silenced voices and fight against the violent discrimination that still threatens the LGBTQ+ community today. He really had nothing to lose.
Nothing To Lose XII (1989) is a part of a much larger colour series of dye-destruction prints depicting traditional Nigerian foods and herbs worn as garments - like royal head-dresses or crowns - as symbols of power and pride. He uses these cultural symbolisms and iconographies in combination with styles from Western masters such as Caravaggio. In doing so, he critiques the visibility and representation of blackness within Western art practice, and thus he transforms his body into a political site. Now held at the V&A Museum, the work continues to achieve all that is set out to do, and more. On one the hand, the existence of Fani-Kayode’s work within largely white-dominated art institutions is progressive: by speaking directly with his oppressor, he is able to motivate social change. On the other hand, the work becomes paradoxical: he relishes in his multifaceted and contradictory approach, further challenging and confronting his audience with layers of self-expression and ambiguity. In this particular image (Nothing To Lose XII), the moody lighting makes it difficult for the viewer to separate the oozing fruit from his body: is it blood? Is it sweat? He plays with the viewers’ predispositions, providing commentary on the objectification and consumption of the black body, whilst continuing to reference the on-going tension between his ancestral spiritual values versus homo-erotic fantasy. Like in many of his other works, Rotimi Fani-Kayode broadly explores the multi-faceted nature of his otherness and confronts his feelings of being an outsider in this way in Nothing To Lose XII (1989). More specifically, his work demonstrates an investigation into the intricacies of his own identity: homosexuality, blackness, and dislocation, whilst contributing to wider conversations about sexuality, racism, and colonialism.
Nothing to Lose XII (1989) shares visual drama and cultural symbolism, as well as political and activist intent with the work of Zanele Muholi; a self-defined queer, visual activist from South Africa. Through dramatic black and white portraits, Muholi powerfully represents and shares the accounts of South Africa’s LGBTQ+ community in Faces and Phases (2006-ongoing),and in turn explores the artists own identity and experience. Similary, Somnyama Ngyonyama (2014-2017) serves a striking series of self-portraits which seek to unpick and challenge post-colonial attitudes. Despite working decades apart, lived experience of prejudice and misrepresentation from within their own cultures unites both Muholi and Fani-Kayode in liberating and emancipating the identities of Black LGBTQ+ people through visual arts. Fani-Kayode’s influence in Muholi’s work subsequently demonstrates the significance of the conversation and fight for racial, sexual and gender equality on a contemporary global scale.
As I learn more and more everyday about powerful and influential artists, I realise now that it is perhaps my own personal lack of investment into Black and LGBTQ+ artists that has taken me until now to become acquainted with Rotimi Fani-Kayode. As I did during my presentation at The Photographer’s Gallery, I encourage my audience to take some time to thoroughly invest in Nothing To Lose XII (1989); invest in research*; perhaps in donating to charities that support the lives of Black and LGBTQ+ communities; perhaps in one of Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s books; or Muholi’s upcoming exhibition at Tate Modern. Ultimately, I urge my reader to invest in their education in Black and LGBTQ+ history; to invest in Black and LGBTQ+ lives.
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