Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s first solo show in New York opened last week. The British-Nigerian artist’s last works, large photographs of the naked male body, are on display at the Walther Collection in New York City. These are images of rites which explore the artist’s familial background as keepers of the shrine in Ife, Nigeria, and the artist’s status as liminoid. Fani-Kayode’s interest in Yoruba ‘techniques of ecstasy’ is juxtaposed against a sombre thinking into sexuality, race, and religion, as discourses of the body.
The artist’s position in relation to these discourse is quoted in the exhibition notes:
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.
If his cultural exile, and sexual identity as an ‘artist with a sexual taste for other young men’ designated him, working in the 1980s, as an outsider, his art takes aim at a genealogy of canonized outsiders.
Fani-Kayode studied in America, at Georgetown and the Pratt Institute, and this 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 Gauguin’s Tahitian portraits; previous works reference the stark bodies of Francis Bacon, or Edouard Manet’s Olympia.
Fani-Kayode’s work with his partner Alex Hirst okayed an important role in art’s response to the AIDS epidemic, in their series ‘Ecstatic Antibodies’ (presented in a 1990 group exhibition of the same name). The artists described the aim of this work as “the ‘alchemical’ or ‘ritual’ production of spiritual antibodies”. This ambition — constructing aesthetic edifices eluding to elusive protective veils — is most closely contemporary to the work of queer artists such as David Wojnarowicz and filmmaker Derek Jarman; the staging of quasi-religious scenes are reminiscent of Jarman’s queering of Genesis, The Garden (1990).
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 1980s did not offer a perfect haven from discrimination, and AIDS exposed latent hatred and discrimination.
Despite this wealth of context, it would be useful to know more about how this work is founded in personal and inherited memories of Yoruba culture, and its performances and image-making. Those traditions are certainly there, not just in the eye of the critic looking for “Africa”, but in novel and challenging forms, bent for new realities. Kobena Mercer’s essay comments on the need for more insight into this dimension, suggesting that comparison to the queer American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, obscure Fani-Kayode’s ‘disparate’ influences. Mercer claims that the work is ‘overturning the dead weight of modernist primitivism in the process of such cultural bricolage’.
Bricolage, however, suggests an amateur, indifferent in his borrowing from a variety of sources. The bricoleur is the classic wanderer without an investment in any one place, weighted down by the effluvia of each place he’s visited: noisy, untidy, on the margins. In weaving together multiplicity, Fani-Kayode’s work places him within that tradition of bricolage. But his work also does far more than offer us a simple, clanging collection. Instead, it places the body in a series of positions which juxtapose the norms of different societies, and their sexual and spiritual practices. As a queer artist who existed between two societies, both of which variously neglected and ostracized the queer body, these positions he takes on in his work are by no means indifferent. Fani-Kayode died in 1989, aged 34. The work completed by that point suggests the mature career of this artist is a real loss.