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Rotimi Fani-Kayode: How Did We Miss Our Genius (Nigeria's Answer To Basquiat)...His "Nothing To Lose" Is Making Huge Waves Right Now At The Walther Collection In New York (PHOTOS)

By Egor Efiok & Joseph Akahome

Our Genius, Rotimi Fani-Kayode.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode's first solo show in New York opened in March, 2012. The Walther Collection  presented “Nothing To Lose” on March 23rd and the exhibition will carry on until 28th July, 2012. If you live in New-York and want to pay homage to the memory of this ace, please click here: to visit The Walter Collection.  

Nothing To Lose XII - 1989 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
Nothing To Lose V11 - 1989 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
The British-Nigerian artist’s last works, large photographs of the naked male body, are on display. These are images of rites which explore the artist’s familial background and the artist’s status, as Timi’s interest in Yoruba ‘techniques of ecstasy’ is juxtaposed against a sombre thinking into sexuality, race, and religion, as discourses of the body. 

Half Open Eyed Twins - 1989 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
Cargo Of The Middle Passage - 1989 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)


This selection of photographs were taken from two bodies of work, "Nothing to Lose" and "Every Moment Counts", which he did in collaboration with his partner, Alex Hirst, as part of two groups of shows that dealt with the impact of AIDS (Bodies of Experience: Stories About Living with HIV and Ecstatic Antibodies). Rotimi embraced the subject and faced his illness fearlessly and without self-pity.
Race, sexuality and nationality are inextricably linked in Rotimi’s photographs and writings; his work is imbued with the subtlety, irony, political and social comments that one would expect from an intelligent and observant black photographer of the late twentieth century. He also contributed much to the artistic debate around HIV and AIDS and was a major influence on young black photographers in the late 1980's and 1990's.
Every Moment Counts - 1989 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
Blackfriar - 1989 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
Rotimi started to exhibit in 1984 and was involved with nine exhibitions between then and his death at the end of 1989. He has since had his work featured posthumously in many exhibitions and retrospectives. His work has been exhibited in the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Germany, South Africa and the USA
He experimented with colour photography of the black male nude, using symbols derived from his native Nigerian culture. The homoerotic desire of black males was explored in his book "Black Male/White Male" of 1988 and his contribution to "Ecstatic Antibodies" (exhibited again in 1990). His vigorous use of colour and original use of symbolism seem to reflect both Nigerian tradition and the new possibilities of expression and political debate in London in the 1980's.
Rotimi's work strikes the Westernized eye as an intervention in the tradition of European image-making, evoking the dramatic contrasts of Caravaggio or the conscious exoticism of Gauguin’s Tahitian portraits; previous works reference the stark bodies of Francis Bacon or Edouard Manet’s Olympia. His ambition - constructing aesthetic edifices eluding to elusive protective veils - is most closely contemporary to the work of David Wojnarowicz and film-maker Derek Jarman.
The artist recognised early on that his sexuality constituted an obstacle between himself and his Nigerian background: “a certain distance has necessarily developed between myself and my origins”. America and England of the 1980's did not offer a perfect haven from discrimination, and AIDS exposed latent hatred and discrimination.
If his cultural exile and sexual identity as an ‘artist with a sexual taste for other young men’ designated him, working in the 1980's, as an outsider, his art takes aim at a genealogy of canonized outsiders.

The artist’s position in relation to this discourse is quoted in some of his exhibition notes, culled from an often-cited essay:

I feel it is essential to resist all attempts that discourage the expression of one’s identity. In my case, my identity has been constructed from my own sense of otherness, whether cultural, racial or sexual. The three aspects are not separate within me. Photography is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography therefore - Black, African, homosexual photography - which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms”. - Rotimi Fani-Kayode (“Traces of Ecstasy”)

 1987 -'88 (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
1988 (By Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
BRIEF PROFILE OF ROTIMI FANI-KAYODE: 1955 -1989

Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in Nigeria in April 1955 and moved to Brighton, England, in 1966 with his family, where he also pursued his secondary school education, attending a number of private schools includinBrighton college, Seabright College anMillfield, before moving to the USA in 1976 to complete his University education. 
Rotimi read Economics (for his parents) and Fine Arts later (for himself), gaining both a BA at Georgetown University in Washington DC and an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) at the Pratt Institute, New York, in Fine Arts & Photography
While in New York, 'timi also met and struck a friendship with Robert MapplethorpeAlthough admitting to some influence by Mapplethorpe’s earlier work, Rotimi pushed the boundaries of his own art much further, exploring sexuality, racism, colonialism and the tensions and conflicts between his homosexuality and his Yoruba upbringing through a series of images in both colour and Black and White.
By this time he was already making photographs of other black men in Yoruba garb, attempting to reconcile in exile his heritage with his homosexuality. He returned to England soon after his graduation from Pratt in 1983.
His photographs are lyrical, sensual, sexual, and mythical self-portraits and portraits of other black and white men. They reflect an ongoing exploration of cultural, sexual, and racial identity and pride. 
As a black man exiled in England from his African homeland, 'timi longed for his Yoruba culture, which, however, was not accepting of his homosexuality. This triangle of conflict defines his work. He never exhibited his images in Africa, fearing that their explicit homoerotic content would damage his family’s standing. 
Timi was also the rare African photographer whose work was purely artistic rather than documentary or commercial. Both his life and art were a dichotomy of revelation and suppression.
Rotimi became a founding member, along with Mark Sealy, of AUTOGRAPH ABPthe influential association of black photographers established in London in 1987, and became their first chair. He was also an active member of the Black Audio Film Collective.

Washington DC's black gay scene was particularly formative during Rotimi's time in the US - "Black Male/White Male" (1988) was dedicated to 'Toni and the spirit of the Clubhouse, DC'. Timi provided the photographs and his partner, British photographer and film-maker, Alex Hirst (who died in 1994), provided the text for its publicationOf the three strands that weave across his body of work, the book includes Timi's most straightforward images exploring masculinity and race, as well as tender portraits of men loving men, nude studies and staged tableaux - his intimate portraits of poet Essex Hemphill, of activist Denis Carney, of musician Blackberri and of poetry-performance diva Assoto Saint, all speak of his involvement in the making of a vibrant transnational culture that was also being shaped by these artists, who were his friends. Along with the films of Isaac Julien, Marlon Riggs and Pratibha Parmar, or the photographs of Sunil Gupta and Lyle Ashton Harris, 'timi's work heralded the arrival of a new cultural politics of difference, which was not without its attendant public controversies.

Denis Carney & late Essex Hemphill in Brixton (by Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
Rotimi and Hirst also collaborated on at least one photographic series entitled "Bodies of Experience". Taken together, Timi's contributions to the transatlantic formation of a black gay cultural diaspora encapsulate his role as a migrant translator. 

Rotimi’s work with his partner, Alex Hirst, played an important role in art’s response to the AIDS epidermic. Particularly important in this regard, is their photographic series, "Ecstatic Antibodies". Like many artists living with HIV/AIDS, transforming symbolic gestures into public acts bearing witness for a generation decimated by disease, the artists described the aim of this work as “the ‘alchemical’ or ‘ritual’ production of spiritual antibodies”. Timi addressed his illness directly“We aim to produce spiritual antibodies to HIV”, he wrote. He responded to imminent death by asserting the power of beauty. 

Rotimi died at age 34 in a London hospital of a heart attack, whilst recovering from an AIDS related illness on 12th December, 1989. At the time of his death, Timi was living in Brixton, London, with his partner, Alex Hirst. His influential career as an artist had lasted a brief seven years and the work completed by that point suggests the mature career of this artist is a real loss. 

Following his death, Hirst signed both artists’ names to works previously attributed to Fani-Kayode alone. Hirst died a few years later in 1994, and the controversy worsened over attribution of Rotimi's work; hence, there is a persistent debate surrounding authorship of Rotimi’s photographs. A posthumous publication, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst: Photographs (1996), further extended the debate. 

Rotimi left behind the more typical realistic documentary photographic tradition and embraced at once, the Yoruba heritage and his sexual identity, and turned to the more adaptive studio tradition with its potential for creating imaginary spaces.


I meant to write this piece about a fortnight ago, but one thing or the other kept getting in the way. Through it all, I felt like a voice from the grave kept giving me a gentle reminder to put this out there; therefore I remain unhinged in my decision to do this. 

It hurts that such an ace had his existence suppressed and now his work is being celebrated in New-York, when his actual wish would have been to have it exhibited first in Nigeria. 


Rotimi comes from one of the most precocious families in the history of Nigeria; even his eloquently written pieces depict this fact. He had degrees in Economics and Fine Arts, because he first of all read what his parents wanted him to read Economics), before reading Fine Arts (to Masters level) for himself. Genes are too STRONG to be suppressed...or as we'd say in our local pidgin, "Lion no fit born goat". A genius begat him, so a genius he was; and this was one thing that nobody could take away from him until he died. It remained his only weapon, which he mostly expressed through his art; and his unique perception made me view reality from a different perspective

Precocious people do not need to go to school; many of them possess far more knowledge than their tutors and some get bored and drop out. Even our very own Fela (of blessed memory), who was also a genius, could detect when he was being taught rubbish and exposed this in one of his satirical songs. Jean-Michel Basquiat dropped out of school after getting fed up and his Father kicked him out of his house in annoyance. However, you cannot subdue a genius and though Basquiat lived a relatively short life, he still died, leaving his father millions, without needing a degree. 

Although Fela, on the other hand, did go to school, he ended up doing what he really wanted to do and he made a successful career out of it. Despite being controversial, long after his death, he is still celebrated as one of Nigeria's top geniuses. He was weird and did exactly what he felt like doing until he died and he could get away with it because his talent was highly respected, even by his critics. Are all geniuses not weird? They are geniuses because their brains are equipped with extra intelligence that normal people do not possess. It is easy to dismiss these people as looneys or 'demonic' (trust 9ja ...let me even help them add 'illuminati'...*eyes rolling*), but the fact that their weird ideas have made huge positive impacts will always make them heroes. 

It was very emotional reading 'timi's pieces and I connected with him easily. He was very hurt because he knew his talent wouldn't be appreciated in his own country. In his own words: "As for Africa itself, if I ever managed to get an exhibition in, say, Lagos, I suspect riots would break out. I would certainly be charged with being a purveyor of corrupt and decadent Western values".

Rotimi was a philanthropist and all his money went to charitable causes. Despite having made so much money, he was never materialistic. He knew he was dying, so he preferred to deprive himself of material gains, live a low-key life in Brixton and leave his money behind to be used for good causes. 


Additionally, Timi ensured that even after his death, his work would keep on making money, by working until he exhausted all his 'spiritual antibodies'. Most people would have done the opposite after it became apparent that death was imminent; but 'timi embraced this reality fearlessly and worked even harder to leave a mark. 1989, the year he died, was when he released his most intelligent pieces. 

Rotimi loved his family, his culture and his people; his only wish was to be acknowledged. This meant more to him than riches. He has joined the list of world geniuses like Basquiat and Warhol, whose works are still making millions long after their deaths. He was gay and yes it is alien to our culture, but speaking from that school of thought, anyone that tries to 'measure sin' is in a laughable state of denial. I'll silently pray for such people not to 'miss the rapture' while they are busy judging others or committing 'small sins'. I have often wondered when I hear some arguments...especially from educated people...if these people really don't realise that a sin is a sin? SMH... 

Realistically, how does one justify the barbaric and uncouth 'petrol and tyre' practice of burning gay men alive? If asked to choose between a gay man that is minding his business and harming nobody, and an armed robber to burn, I can bet that the gay man will fall victim. Notice also, how I stress on 'man'? This is just to point out the hypocrisy that so many of these 'judges' are themselves guilty of when they quote the bible out of context or choose the parts to 'obey', that they deem fit. They would readily burn gay 'men' but find gay 'women' erotic and use them to fulfil their freaky fantasies. They forget however, that GOD CANNOT BE MOCKED. 

Did God appoint us judges over people's lives? Did Jesus judge people when He was on earth? Didn't He show love to tax collectors and other sinners alike and even took a robber with Him to Heaven? Frankly, it is embarrassing that people that are hurt about racial discrimination, would in the same breath, discriminate against gay people. Timi didn't kill anybody and he was not a criminal. He was only gay. Always apply wisdom in issues like this...if you find the thought repulsive, then rather than judge, just mind your business.

Finally, notice how geniuses detest hypocrisy and how far some of them go in using their talents to expose various practices? Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fela were some of the boldest with their rib-cracking satires expressed in art and music, respectively. With Timi, although he decided to release "Nothing To Lose" as an exposé after years of holding back, he actually held back a lot. In his exact words: 

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 a feeling of having very little to lose. It produces a sense of personal freedom from the hegemony of convention. It opens up areas of creative enquiry which might otherwise have remained forbidden. 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 (“Traces of Ecstasy”)

His 'exposé' was pretty mild, IMO, and he didn't reveal anything damaging - to be honest, I was more excited about the fact that a genius from Nigeria was being eulogised in New York, albeit it happening after his death. 

Timi deliberately left some 'cliffhangers' that will leave people forever guessing. I couldn't help giggling at this nosy lady's frustration: "These images are confounding. There is no obvious point of entry in Fani-Kayode’s fabricated world. I feel ultimately kept at a distance.  Fani-Kayode deliberately aims to create a complexity in order to hold the viewer at bay. While I feel drawn in by the theatricality of the composition, the rich and sensuous coloring, dramatic lighting and luscious flowers, leaves and feathers, I am unable to access the meaning. I am reminded of the..........and yet, at all time, are shielded from view. One does not enter their world". Lol!!! Nosy poker. Hehehe. Whatever...

Ultimately, we can see that 'timi wasn't a vindictive person. He was hurt and knew he had nothing to lose since he was dying anyway; yet he preferred to take some secrets with him to his grave. That's a seriously cool dude. He left a lot of good behind. Imagine all the people that passed him by on the streets of Brixton, noticed him sitting on the bus or train and dismissed him with a demeaning stare; without realising that contrary to their derogatory thoughts of him, they were looking at a very well educated, good guy, a genius who had stripped himself of all he had in order to leave some good behind. Some of the people that may have dismissed him then could be benefiting from some of his charities today without realising that they had once met their generous donor. 


The most important thing is that Rotimi was a good guy, so nothing else should matter. If you are tempted to judge anyone or quote the bible, please remember first that God said, "Judge not so that ye may not be judged"...and then hold that thought. All Timi wanted back was love and acknowledgement. Can he at least get that? Please? Where was he buried also? This is one information I have been unable to unearth. I just came across this tribute from Rotimi's younger brother, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode and I think it is really sweet:


 Chief FFK's Tribute To His Ace Brother




Some of Rotimi's notes from an essay he wrote for art magazine, Ten:8 in 1988, in which he explained his vision in clear and refreshing words thus:


“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 opened 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 mythologizing 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.   However, this is more easily said than done. Working in a Western context, the African artist inevitably encounters racism. And since I have concentrated much of my work on male eroticism, I have also had homophobic reactions to it, both from the white and Black communities. Although this is kind of disappointing on a purely human level, perhaps it also produces a kind of essential conflict through which to struggle to new visions. It is a conflict, however, between unequal partners and is, in that sense, one in which I remain at a disadvantage”. 



Read some extracts from Rotimi's book, Traces Of Ecstasy, after the cut...

A text of Rotimi Fani Kayode:

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.

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 a feeling of having very little to lose. It produces a sense of personal freedom from the hegemony of convention. For one who has managed to hang on to his own creativity through the crises of adolescence and in spite of the pressures to conform, it has a liberating effect. It opens up areas of creative enquiry which might otherwise have remained forbidden. At the same time, traces of the former values remain, making it possible to take new readings on to them from an unusual vantage point. The results are bound to be disorientating.

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.

However, this is more easily said than done. Working in a Western context, the African artist inevitably encounters racism. And since I have concentrated much of my work on male erotism, I have also had homophobic reactions to it, both from the white and Black communities. Although this is disappointing on a purely human level, perhaps it also produces a kind of essential conflict through which to struggle to new visions. It is a conflict, however, between unequal partners and is, in that sense, one in which I remain at a disadvantage.

For this reason, I have been active in various groups which are organised around issues of race and sexuality. For the individual, such joint activity can provide confidence and insight. For artists, it can transform and extend one’s Westernised ideas – for instance, that art is a product of individual inspiration or that it must conform to certain aesthetic principles of taste, style and content. It can also have the very concrete effect of providing the means for otherwise isolated and powerless artists to show their work and to insist on being taken seriously.

An awareness of history has been of fundamental importance in the development of my creativity. The history of Africa and of the Black race has been constantly distorted. Even in Africa, my education was given in English in Christian schools, as though the language and culture of my own people, the Yoruba, were inadequate or in some way unsuitable for the healthy development of young minds. In exploring Yoruba history and civilisation, I have rediscovered and revalidated areas of my experience and understanding of the world. I see parallels now between my own work and that of the Osogbo artists in Yorubaland who themselves have resisted the cultural subversions of neo-colonialism and who celebrate the rich, secret world of our ancestors.

It remains true, however, that the great Yoruba civilisations of the past, like so many other non-European cultures, are still consigned by the West to the museums of primitive art and culture. The Yoruba cosmology, comparable in its complexities and subtleties to Greek and Oriental philosophical myth, is treated as no more than a bizarre superstition which, as if by miracle, happened to inspire the creation of some of the most sensitive and delicate artefacts in the history of art. Modern Yoruba art (amongst which I situate my own contributions) may now sometimes fetch high prices in the galleries of New York and Paris. It is prized for its exotic appeal. Similarly, the modern versions of Yoruba beliefs carried by the slaves to the New World have become, in their carnival form, tourist attractions. I am inevitably caught up in this.

Another aspect of history – that of sexuality has also affected me deeply. Official history has always denied the validity of erotic relationships and experiences between members of the same sex. As in the fields of politics and economics, the historians of social and sexual relations have been readily assisted in their fabrications by the Church. But in spite of all attempts by Church and state to suppress homosexuality, it is clear that enriching sexual relationships between members of the same sex have always existed. They are part of the human condition, even if the concept of sexual identity is a more recent notion.

There is a grim chapter of European history which was not drummed into me at school. I only discovered much later that the Nazis had developed the most extreme form of homophobia to have existed in modern times, and attempted to exterminate homosexuals in the concentration camps. It came not so much as a surprise but as yet another example of the long-standing European tradition of the violent suppression of otherness. It touches me just as closely as the knowledge that millions of my ancestors were killed or enslaved in order to ensure European political, economic and cultural hegemony of the world.

For this reason I feel it is essential to resist all attempts that discourage the expression of one’s identity. In my case, my identity has been constructed from my own sense of otherness, whether cultural, racial or sexual. The three aspects are not separate within me. Photography is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography, therefore – Black, African, homosexual photography – which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and indeed, my existence on my own terms.

It is no surprise to find that one’s work is shunned or actively discouraged by the Establishment. The homosexual bourgeoisie has been more supportive - not because it is especially noted for its championing of Black artists, but because Black ass sells almost as well as Black dick. As a result of homosexual interest I have had various portfolios printed in the gay press, and a book of nudes published by GMP. There has also been some attention given to my erotic work by the sort of straight galleries which receive funding from more progressive local authorities.

But in the main, both galleries and press have felt safer with my ethnic work. Occasionally they will take on board some of the less-overtly threatening and outrageous pictures – in the classic liberal tradition. But Black is still only beautiful as long as it keeps within white frames of reference.

I have been more disconcerted by the response to my work from certain sections of the self-proclaimed avant-garde, however. At the Misfits exhibition at Oval House (which happened to coincide with the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the birth there of Lord Montgomery of Alamein) I was asked, along with other artists, to remove my work in case it attracted unfavourable publicity. We refused, naturally. Unfortunately, the press were too busy paying homage to Monty so the national reputation of Oval House was saved, and we were denied some free publicity.

As for Africa itself, if I ever managed to get an exhibition in, say, Lagos, I suspect riots would break out. I would certainly be charged with being a purveyor of corrupt and decadent Western values.

However, sometimes I think that if I took my work into the rural areas, where life is still vigorously in touch with itself and its roots, the reception might be more constructive. Perhaps they would recognise my smallpox gods, my transexual priests, my images of desirable Black men in a state of sexual frenzy, or the tranquillity of communion with the spirit world. Perhaps they have far less fear of encountering the darkest of Africa’s dark secrets by which some of us seek to gain access to the soul.
                                   
(Rotimi Fani-Kayodé, "Traces of Ecstasy", 1987)


EXTRACT (THE 30 FIRST PAGES OF THE BOOK / 128 p.)



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