View of “Rotimi Fani-Kayode,” 2019. Top: Maternal Milk, ca. 1986. Bottom, from left: Nothing to Lose XII (Bodies of Experience), 1989; The Golden Phallus, 1989.

View of “Rotimi Fani-Kayode,” 2019. Top: Maternal Milk, ca. 1986. Bottom, from left: Nothing to Lose XII (Bodies of Experience), 1989; The Golden Phallus, 1989.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode

In Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Every Moment Counts (Ecstatic Antibodies), 1989, two black men stand in a half embrace. The shorter of the two gazes downward, his head resting on the other’s shoulder; they are draped in a lush burgundy fabric that traces a diagonal across the image. On the left, the taller man looks up and out, toward his edge of the frame, in the direction of the light source. Hovering behind his head is a halo of pearls attached to a red cross, a prop that sets the picture in the tradition of Christian iconography. (The figures’ illumination against a completely dark background additionally recalls a Baroque group portrait.) Every Moment Counts is one of the many color prints Fani-Kayode produced in 1989, the year of his death, that allude to the aids epidemic and entangle the old masters with raw homoeroticism and references to West African, European, and Afro-Caribbean religions. In this case, the urgency suggested by the work’s title is monumentalized by the picture’s solemnity. The parenthetical phrase points to the artist’s investment in “the technique of ecstasy”—as if the very antibodies generated to fight the disease could be imbued with divine power. Read as a devotional image, the work expresses a bid for communion that is tethered to the actual people we see before the camera, rather than to any saintly forebears whose poses the pair performs. They stand with and comfort each other as we join them in the act of viewing.

“Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 1955–1989” focused exclusively on the artist’s studio portraits of black subjects, intermingling the aforementioned 1989 color examples with earlier experiments in black and white, such as the quadruple-exposure Four Twins, 1985. As W. Ian Bourland has recently chronicled, Fani-Kayode drew on a cosmopolitan array of references, from his Yoruba origins to the myriad art, punk, and queer scenes that he was part of during the 1970s and ’80s. In Nigeria, Fani-Kayode’s family held the prestigious title of protectors of the shrine of Ife, the ancient Yoruba city; in 1966, after a military coup, they relocated to the Brighton neighborhood of London. Fani-Kayode later studied at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and Pratt Institute in New York, where he received an MFA in 1983 before returning to the UK. He locates his own story of migration alongside the traumatic histories of the Black Atlantic in works such as Cargo of Middle Passage, 1989, a grim black-and-white photograph of a seated naked man, cramped within the frame, his fingers over his eyes, his elbows jutting out. When it came to “African” subject matter, however, Fani-Kayode’s approach was determinedly anti-essentialist. The white, beaked mask in The Golden Phallus, 1989, suggests the Yoruba eiye ororo (“bird of the mind”), but is reminiscent of an Italian masque. The nude figure wearing it sits with a knee up, echoing the pose of Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604. His penis is covered in gold paint—a sort of apotropaic condom—and sits on a taut white string that slices menacing diagonals across the picture, popping out from the array of browns in the flesh and background. The Golden Phallus typifies Fani-Kayode’s historically and chromatically rich riposte to primitivist photographers, from Man Ray to Robert Mapplethorpe: The creating black subject now intervenes on the territory of the desired black body.

This sliver of the artist’s vast oeuvre, represented by new ink-jet prints, made clear that a stateside Fani-Kayode retrospective is sorely needed. The artist’s original Cibachromes and gum-bichromate prints would better illustrate his exhaustive explorations of the history of the medium. A broader selection of works might also foreground Fani-Kayode’s use of Georges Bataille’s deconstructive “base materialism.” After all, for every elegant Dan Mask, 1989—in which a dreadlocked figure holds and seems to kiss one of the vizards for which the West African Dan tribe is known—there is a visceral Bronze Head, 1987, in which a man’s ass is both sodomized by and “birthing” an Ife statue. Likewise, a work like Abiku (Born to Die), 1988, in which a figure prepares to hang himself with umbilical rubber tubing, complicates its own fatalism. The artist’s late partner, Alex Hirst, noted that Fani-Kayode had learned that his was an abiku name, given to children who die young, yet that his specifically means “Stay by me”—calling for communion itself.