Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in 1955, in Lagos, Nigeria to a prominent Yoruba family before moving to England following the outbreak of civil war. He later studied at Georgetown University and the Pratt Institute in the USA, before settling permanently in London in 1983 where he lived and worked until his untimely death in 1989.
Fani-Kayode is a highly influential figure in the history of art who, despite a tragically brief career, produced a complex body of photographic work that explored themes of race, sexuality, spirituality, and the self. At the core of Fani-Kayode’s art was an emphasis on difference and otherness. The status of ‘outsider’ was one with which he identified on multiple fronts — from his ‘geographic dislocation’ to the exclusion he experienced as a result of his sexuality and artistic career — and which motivated him throughout his life. Fani-Kayode’s powerful legacy continues to speak to urgent issues concerning identity politics, belonging and desire, and has deeply impacted subsequent generations of contemporary artists and photographers.
Fani-Kayode skillfully combined the style of western Old Masters with traditional Yoruba iconography. Mirroring the rituals of Yoruba priests of Ife, from whom he was descended, his practice sought to emulate the priests’ ‘techniques of ecstasy.’ Bodies are posed in erotic acts of devotion, adorned in a mixture of fetish and traditional African attire – the body acts as a divine messenger. Concepts of reality become ambiguous as Fani-Kayode continuously sought out the spiritual in his work. He explored photography as ritual, the photographs themselves becoming talismanic objects existing beyond the realm of denotation. Fani-Kayode drew parallels between his practice and Osogbo artists of Nigeria, whose artworks celebrate their personal connection to Yoruba cosmology and ancestral past. A recurrent theme in his work was the notion of Abiku, stemming from Yoruba mythology, meaning born to die — he had a sense of his own mortality from an early age.
In the final years of his life, Fani-Kayode meticulously crafted portraits in colour. The chromatic works show a refinement of technique and mark a coalescing of ideas and sensibilities. Fani-Kayode had developed an exceptional aesthetic approach that embraced a constructed mise-en-scène dense with references to Yoruba cosmology. The Black male body was the focal point for an imaginative ‘exploration of the relationship between erotic fantasy and ancestral spiritual values.’ In richly saturated colour photographs, Fani-Kayode illuminates figures against dark backdrops, recalling the chiaroscuro of baroque painting. The staged compositions draw direct reference to the masterpieces of Caravaggio in his use of light, muscular bodies, gestures, and fruit.
Fani-Kayode visualized Black queer self-expression through a fusing of African and European cultures. He interrogated histories, transcending his own marginalization to create powerful new realities. Pioneering at the time of creation, his oeuvre remains distinct and poignant.
Fani-Kayode has had numerous solo shows since the mid 1980s, including exhibitions at Riverside Studios, London, UK (1986); Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, MA, USA (2009); Autograph, Rivington Place, London, UK (2011); Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2014); Syracuse University Art Galleries, NY, USA (2016); Hales Project Room, NY, USA (2018); Iceberg Projects, Chicago, IL (2019) and Hales New York (2021). In 2020, his work was featured in the major exhibition, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, at the Barbican Centre, London, UK. In 2019, Fani-Kayode’s work was included in group exhibitions, Artist and Society: Intimacy, Activism and AIDS, Tate Modern, UK; Walkthrough British Art: Sixty Years, Tate Britain, UK; Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, Guggenheim Museum, UK. In 2003, his work was featured in the 50th Venice Biennale, Italy and in 2011 in ARS 11 at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland. Fani-Kayode is represented in numerous public collections, including Autograph, London, UK; Tate, London, UK; Victoria & Albert Museum London, UK; Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland; Krannert Art Museum, IL, USA; Chapman University, CA, USA; Guggenheim Museum NY, USA; Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, UK; Centraal Museum, The Netherlands; Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX, USA; Carnegie Museum of Art, PA, USA; The Walther Collection USA/Germany; and Harvard University’s Hutchins Centre MA, USA.
Fani-Kayode was an early chair of Autograph London, an organization which continues to represent, advocate, and preserve his work in their collection. Autograph shares the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights, and social justice. Hales are delighted to be collaborating with Autograph to present Fani-Kayode’s work.