/ 1 May 2014

Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s visions of ecstasy

Rotimi Fani-Kayode's 'Untitled
Rotimi Fani-Kayode's 'Untitled

An explicit homoerotic photographic exhibition of black men, with some pictures showing full frontal nudity and erect penises, and which has been on show since February in the South African National Gallery, has hardly attracted any public debate or protests. It is a credit to the country, and testament to the institution, that it can freely stage an exhibition of this nature.

A former minister of arts and culture walked out in disgust in 2010 after seeing a “lesbian” photographic exhibition to which her own department had contributed.

And the depiction of a black penis – admittedly it was the president’s own – threw the country into turmoil two years ago with the exhibition of Brett Murray’s The Spear. The higher education minister not only thought the painting should be removed but seemed to agree with the Communist Youth League leader that it should be destroyed.

Homosexuality in Africa remains a taboo for many. South Africa’s safeguards for sexual orientation and freedom of artistic expression, both explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution, are dismissed by its neighbours as the wicked consequence of having accepted a “Western-style” human rights-based system.

Scrapping the protection
Even so, the vote for same-sex marriage was only accomplished because the ANC parliamentary whip imposed party discipline on the caucus and forced them to vote in line with a Constitutional Court ruling, which in turn had forced the vote in Parliament. The National House of Traditional Leaders has called for scrapping the protection of sexual orientation clause from the Constitution. And more recently in Parliament, the ruling ANC blocked a motion to condemn Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws in principle.

It has taken 25 years since Rotimi Fani-Kayode passed away to see his first retrospective oeuvre exhibited in an art museum in Africa. On show are life-size colour and black-and-white portraits, as well as a selection of archival material such as unique Polaroids and contact sheets.

A seminal figure of black British and African contemporary art in the 1980s, and the first chair of Autograph ABP, Fani-Kayode was a member of a prominent Yoruba family who fled Africa as a political refugee in 1966. He went on to study in Washington, DC, and New York, before returning to the United Kingdom where he lived and worked until his death in 1989 at the age of 34.

His works are in permanent collections in major museums in London, New York, Helsinki and Sydney, but not in Africa. “As for Africa itself, if I ever managed to get an exhibition in say Lagos, I suspect riots would break out. I would certainly be charged with being a purveyor of corrupt and decadent Western values,” Fani-Kayode wrote in 1988 (Ten.8 magazine, No 28: Rage & Desire).

On purpose
“I make my pictures homosexual on purpose,” he stated. “Black men from the Third World have not previously revealed either to their own peoples or to the West a certain shocking fact: they can desire each other … But in spite of all attempts by church and state to suppress homosexuality, it is clear that enriching sexual relationships between members of the same sex have always existed. They are part of the human condition, even if the concept of sexual identity is more of a recent notion.”

Whereas he saw in the work of European photographers such as Leni Riefenstahl a “rather neurotic” desire for black males, an “exploitative mythologising of black virility” and “vulgar objectification of Africa”, he saw his own work as reappropriating such images and transforming them ritualistically through ecstatic visions in the Yoruba artistic tradition.

He fully understood that in the hands of collectors and publishers, his work sold among the homosexual bourgeoisie “because black ass sells almost as well as black dick”, but it empowered him to undertake his unique, antithetical creative journey.

The exhibition in Cape Town could not be more timely as political leaders elsewhere in Africa – who are patently failing their people – desperately shore up support for their corrupt regimes by stirring up moral hysteria and enacting laws to legalise the persecution of Africa’s homosexuals, including in the late artist’s home country of Nigeria.

If black politicians and leaders in South Africa won’t stand up and say anything, then let the writers and artists speak, even the dead ones.

Fani-Kayode put his faith in fellow Africans. Shortly before he died, he wrote: “Sometimes I think that if I took my work into the rural areas, where life is still vigorously in touch with itself and its roots, the reception might be more constructive.

“Perhaps they would recognise my smallpox Gods, my transsexual priests, my images of desirable black men in a state of sexual frenzy, or the tranquillity of communion with the spirit world. Perhaps they have far less fear of encountering the darkest of Africa’s dark secrets by which some of us seek to gain access to the soul.”

The exhibition Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989): Traces of Ecstasy is on at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, until May 15.