11 January 2023
Rotimi Fani-Kayode Transatlantic Vision
Darius Bost is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
In my book, Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence (Chicago, 2019), I wrote about the renaissance of black gay male cultural production in the 1980s and 1990s. In those decades, black gay men across the Atlantic used a range of cultural forms—media, literature, film, dance, music, and performance—as modes of community building, political mobilization, self-determination in the face of state neglect and cultural exclusion, and cultural preservation amid the losses of AIDS and anti-black and anti-gay violence. Given my narrow focus on literary cultures in two U.S. cities—Washington, D.C., and New York City—I was unable to discuss the significance of the visual arts and transnational exchange between black American and black British artists. For example, Washington, D.C.-based, black gay writer Essex Hemphill visited London in the winter of 1986 and performed a series of readings from his poetry collection Conditions at various cultural venues. New York City-based writer and performer Assotto Saint toured London in April 1988 with his theatre group Metamorphosis, performing pieces from his award-winning, black gay-themed trilogy. However, media documentation of these events and others featuring U.S. black gay artists who traveled to London give the impression that the flows of black gay culture moved unilaterally from the U.S. to the U.K. While conducting research for my current project on queer visual cultures of the black Atlantic, I have found little commentary on how black gay artists in London influenced U.S. black gay culture. A focus on the contributions of Nigerian-British visual artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode suggests some ways that British artists influenced U.S. black gay culture during the 1980s black gay cultural renaissance.
Fani-Kayode was born in 1955 in Lagos, Nigeria. His father was a member of the political aristocracy in Nigeria, and a keeper of the shrine of Yoruba deities in Ife. At the age of twelve, Fani-Kayode moved with his family to Brighton, England, to escape the Nigerian Civil War. He attended numerous private schools in England for his secondary education before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1976 to complete his undergraduate education in Economics at Georgetown University. He lived in New York City in the early 1980s while completing his MFA in Fine Arts and Photography at Pratt Institute. While living in the U.S., Fani-Kayode shared spaces with many of the artists and writers that I write about in Evidence of Being, including the DC Clubhouse, an internationally renowned nightclub that became an important site of black lesbian and gay cultural and political formation in the late 1970s [until an estimated 40% of its membership roles were lost to AIDS by the late 80s]. That he dedicated his first monograph Black Male/White Male (1988) to 'Toni and the spirit of the Clubhouse' demonstrates how U.S. black gay communities influenced his practice. Yet, little is known about how Fani-Kayode influenced these communities during his time there.
We can see more of his influence on the black cultural renaissance when directing our attention to his practice in London, to which he returned after completing his studies in the United States. Fani-Kayode photographed Hemphill alongside black gay British activist Dennis Carney for his monograph Black Male/White Male. He also photographed Saint, and Oakland, California-based musician Blackberri, another important contributor to the black gay cultural renaissance who performed at the historic Black Gay Conference in London in 1987. Notably, one of the images from Black Male/White Male graced the cover of Tongues Untied, a collection of black gay British and American poetry published by the London-based Gay Men’s Press in 1987. The collection inspired U.S.-based filmmaker Marlon Rigg's 1989 film Tongues Untied. Riggs’ film and Black British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s 1989 Looking for Langston—which includes the work of many U.S. black gay cultural producers—demonstrate the significance of transatlantic exchange to the 1980s black gay cultural renaissance. Rotimi’s contributions to this movement establishes the significance of photography to this cultural movement. His longtime artistic collaborator and romantic partner Alex Hirst describes Fani-Kayode’s photography as 'a means of reaching others who on a world scale would otherwise be quite beyond the scope of an individual’s ability to speak to them.'1
Beyond the emphasis on transnational exchange and collaboration, evidence from the archive suggests how Fani-Kayode work sought to expand the philosophical underpinnings of the black gay cultural renaissance in the service of a broader vision of collective liberation. The British Library holds an audio recording of the memorial event held at the Photographer’s Gallery in London in January 1991 in honor of Fani-Kayode after his untimely death in 1989 from a heart attack. At this event, Hirst provided reflections on Rotimi’s work that suggest how it contributed to this broader cultural movement. Commenting on Fani-Kayode's self-identification as an 'African working in a Western medium,' Hirst discusses how Rotimi sought to challenge the West's tradition of separating rather than combining, which has created dualisms like black and white, sacred and profane, and heterosexual and homosexual, that has secured its dominance for over five centuries.2 Hirst also emphasized how Fani-Kayode brought to the photographic medium a non-Western perspective that viewed art as inseparable from everyday life. Rotimi drew from ancestral traditions in which art 'was a way for society to make concrete its emotions, its aesthetic concerns, its hopes and its fears and to give form to a collective consciousness of history, psychology, ethics, and dreams.'3 In so doing, Rotimi destabilized the Western dualisms that undergirded the terms 'black' and 'gay,' while acknowledging the power of combining these terms towards collective social and spiritual transformation. His refusal to separate art from ordinary life showed other black gay cultural producers that their artistic practices were inextricable from the community’s broader aims of social and spiritual transformation. In sum, Fani-Kayode’s work expanded the vision of the black gay cultural renaissance beyond Western constructions of identity and aesthetics and toward a vision of the black gay Atlantic unbound by the Western categorical distinctions that fostered the collective marginalization of black gay men and disparaged ways of knowing and modes of expression that might 'give form to [black gay male] collective consciousness.'
1. Alex Hirst, 'Talk at Friends of Rotimi Lecture,' Photographer’s Gallery, London, UK, January 16, 1991. Casette. Photographer’s Gallery Recordings. British Library.
2. Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 'Traces of Estasy,' Revue Noire, November 1996, p. 6; Hirst, 'Talk at Friends of Rotimi Lecture.'
3. Alex Hirst, 'Talks at Friends of Rotimi Lecture,' Photographer’s Gallery, London, UK, January 16, 1991. Casette. Photographer’s Gallery Recordings. British Library.