Rotimi Fani-Kayode: Erotic photography from the ultimate outsider

Updated 3rd March 2016
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Rotimi Fani-Kayode: Erotic photography from the ultimate outsider
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
During his life, gay Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode struggled to find acceptance. Writing for now-defunct British photography magazine Ten.8, he once described himself as an outsider "on three counts."
"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."
Gaining prominence in the United Kingdom and United States in the 1980s, Fani-Kayode tapped into the turbulence of the gay community -- which at the time was facing both the rise of HIV/AIDS and ostracism. His often sensual photographs not only addressed issues of sexuality and race, but of nationality. The son of a Yoruba chief, Fani-Kayode introduced elements of his culture into his art. Writing about his work, Fani-Kayode once said:
"I see parallels now between my own work and that of the Osogbo artists in Yorubaland who themselves resisted the cultural subversions of neo-colonialism and who celebrate the rich, secret world of our ancestors."
Now, more than 25 years after his death (he died in 1989 from a heart attack), Fani-Kayode is reaching a new audience, both in the west and in Africa.

Ahead of his time

Photography collective Autograph ABP -- which Fani-Kayode co-founded -- will be touring the artist's work in a series of exhibits in cities around the world. Currently, he's being shown at the Palitz Gallery at Syracuse University's Lubin House, New York.
Compatriot and gay rights activist Bisi Alimi is in no doubt as to what Fani-Kayode left behind.
"It's important to emphasize that Rotimi's works were years ahead of their time," he argues. "(When) Rotimi was using photography to highlight sexuality in Nigeria, there were hardly any strong, progressive debates globally.
"His work epitomized not just the reality of being gay, but of being a black gay man. It challenged the whole concept of black male masculinity and the importance of body empowerment. Rotimi's work broke down all the barriers."
Fani-Kayode left Nigeria when his family fled to the United Kingdom as refugees of the country's civil war in the mid 1960's. But his work is now beginning to gain recognition in the land of his birth.
"I am sure an average Nigerian can tell you they have heard of Picasso or Michelangelo, but not (Fani-Kayode)," notes Aliimi, though that is slowly starting to change.
In 2014, the photographer received his first major museum retrospective on the continent, at the Iziko Museum in South Africa, the same year the nation's then-president, Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which threatens a 10-year prison sentence on anyone who even witnesses a gay marriage.
In light of the legislation, Fani-Kayode's work is even more pertinent.
"The likes of (Fani-Kayode) gave us the beauty of self-awareness and self-joy," says Aliimi, who adds that if anything, more galleries should showcase his work.
"Let's open up the space and let these people exhibit in major venues. Let's tell the black queer story Rotimi Fani-Kayode was telling three decades ago."