In this guest post, W. Ian Bourland writes about artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of his death, December 21, 1989. Bourland is the author of Bloodflowers: Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Photography, and the 1980s, which examines Fani-Kayode’s art as a touchstone for cultural debates surrounding questions of gender and queerness, race and diaspora, aesthetics and politics, and the enduring legacy of slavery and colonialism. Bourland is Assistant Professor of Global Contemporary Art History at Georgetown University.
This month, Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s would have been 64 years old. Instead, he died in a hospital for infectious diseases in north London, survived by his partner, the writer Alex Hirst. They had met six years earlier when Fani-Kayode returned to London after seven years in the United States. There, he received formal and informal educations in Washington and New York, at university and in the countercultural spaces of clubland, the black gay poetry, and the rapidly changing eighties art world. In so doing, he broke with his family’s aspirations that he go into a “respectable” field, and consigned himself to permanent exile as an out gay man during a time of widespread homophobia and in the wake of the early days of the AIDS crisis. I explore this art and the context in which it was created in Bloodflowers.
From the time that Fani-Kayode knocked on Hirst’s door, he was a fixture in the community spaces around Brixton. Intellectuals like C.L.R. James, luminaries of the Caribbean Arts Movement, experimental theatre producers, and local non-profit gallery owners all converged in this landscape south of the Thames; they were part of a larger movement on the part of the Greater London Council and leftist leaders—from Darcus Howe to Ken Livingstone—to push back against the austerity and xenophobia of the Thatcher years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in this era of conservatism and in advance of the art sector boomtimes of the 1990s, Fani-Kayode’s art existed below the radar for mainstream audiences. He published in the pages of Square Peg, a queer journal that Hirst co-edited; and showed his photographs at a range of smaller spaces throughout the city. Dozens of his black-and-white photographs of men were published by Gay Men’s Press by 1988, and they circulated globally, mostly in specialist book shops. He also co-founded Autograph ABP, which continues to thrive to this day. It is now housed in a David Adjaye-designed building in the Shoreditch neighborhood that it shares with the Stuart Hall library. They recently staged a powerful show of portraits by South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi who, in many ways, is a successor of Fani-Kayode’s.
To some extent, it is remarkable that Fani-Kayode’s art has persisted. He died with few resources, his archive only preserved by the grace of friends like Hirst and Autograph director Mark Sealy. In the closing weeks of 1989, the “globalized” network of the contemporary art world that we now take for granted was in its infancy. The idea of professors and curators and academic journals taking his photographs seriously—taking contemporary African art seriously at all—seemed unlikely. And yet, the work survived: in shows in France, a collection with the publisher Revue Noire, and in 1996 in the landmark In/Sight exhibition of modern and contemporary African photography at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The museum still has some of those magnificent chromogenic prints, initially secured by the late Okwui Enwezor over two decades ago. They were on display this autumn alongside works by Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, and others. Smaller solo shows have been held throughout the United States, and even as far away as Cape Town.
I came to know Fani-Kayode’s work through the writing of Enwezor, Kobena Mercer, and Steven Nelson back in 2006. Then, he was widely celebrated as a key figure in the emerging field of contemporary African art history: he had written a powerful artist’s statement declaring himself to be a Yoruban photographer working in Europe, and his virtuosic photographs drew freely on iconographies from the western Africa and its diasporas. These he put in dialogue with Baroque painting, photographic modernism, classical myth and Christian symbolism. In short, his oeuvre is an art historian’s dream, and a source of boundless inspiration to viewers from many walks of life.
But I think Fani-Kayode was so important then, as now, for the visionary quality of his life and practice. This was literally true, in his invocation of a Yoruban “technique of ecstasy,” states of reverie in his method. But it was also socially resonant. He built on histories of gay liberation and black radicalism, but merged them in provocative ways that put pressure on a range of cultural boundaries and stereotypes. His pictures figured subjects that we might now think of in terms of queer or intersectional identities and what Stuart Hall was then theorizing as “New Ethnicities.” Moreover, Fani-Kayode was attuned to European history and contemporary politics—wary of ethno-nationalism and the lures of fascism, he thought of his camera as a weapon in a fight for survival fought every day by people of color, refugees, and exiles all over the world. Certainly these problems are as pressing today as they were in 1989.
I often felt a deep sadness writing Bloodflowers. I wondered what it would have been like for Fani-Kayode to survive long enough to see his work hang in some of the most important museums in the world, to see friends and contemporaries go on to great success, securing blue chip gallery representation, winning the prestigious Turner Prize. If only he had made it a few more years, he might have enjoyed the fruits of a post-Cold War world in which “difference” was suddenly so highly valued. Of course, Mercer and others wrote of the ambivalence with which such victories were won, the narrow path and creative strictures many black artists faced as the price of admission to the gilded circuit of fairs and biennials and wealthy dealers. As a singular voice and a defiantly independent artist, Fani-Kayode would have likely chafed at such expectations, but his perspective would have been a vital one as the decade unfolded.
Fani-Kayode is now widely recognized as one of the most important artists of the 1980s, is part of landmark group shows, and his reputation seems to grow with each passing year. He’s even featured alongside peers like Yinka Shonibare in the textbook I use in many of my courses. Looking back during this season of retrospection, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the apparent cultural and political sea change that it augured, it is easy to wonder how much progress we have made. Three decades later, it seems that the art world has caught up to Fani-Kayode’s powerful example; in so many other ways, our collective work is only beginning.
You can read the introduction of Bloodflowers free online now, and purchase a paperback copy of for 30% off using the coupon code E19BRLND.