Arts & Culture

Du Bois exhibit a first in U.S.

4 min read

‘Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989): Photographs’

The images on the walls of the intimate gallery at 104 Mt. Auburn St. are hauntingly evocative. In “Black Friar,” a hooded figure stares out of the darkness, his gaze intense and unsettled. An opposing image, “Every Moment Counts,” offers a modern approach to Jesus, as a beloved disciple leans against the body of the Christ-like figure whose eyes are fixed on the heavens.

The works comprise a new exhibit titled “Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989): Photographs,” a selection of photographs by the Nigerian-born artist Fani-Kayode, in partial collaboration with his late partner Alex Hirst.

The show was born out of what its curator calls “an ongoing dialogue between Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Autograph ABP,” a London-based organization co-founded by Fani-Kayode in 1988 that promotes photography addressing issues of race, cultural identity, and human rights. The exhibit will be on display at the Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, located in the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, through May 15.

“When Professor Gates called at the end of last year to discuss the possibility of curating a show for the Rudenstine Gallery’s spring 2009 slot, we were of course delighted by the prospect of this partnership,” said the show’s curator Renée Mussai, archive project manager at Autograph ABP.

Often sexually charged, the pictures are also infused with religious, racial, and ethnic themes and reflect the artist’s efforts to understand his own life, his cultural heritage, and his homosexuality, all while living in exile.

Fani-Kayode was born in Nigeria in 1955 to a family with strong ties to both politics and the Yoruba religion. Following a military coup in 1966, the artist fled with his family to England. In 1976, he moved to the United States to further his studies. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1980, he earned a master’s of fine arts from the Pratt Institute in 1983. His career was cut short by a brief, unexpected illness in 1989 when he was just 34.

A self-described outsider, much of Fani-Kayode’s work is informed by what Mussai calls “the complexity of experience of his life, and the multiple positions he occupied — as an African in exile, a political black gay man in 1980s London, a struggling young artist on the margins of society, a son estranged from his familial and cultural traditions yearning to get in touch with his roots and ancestral heritage.”

The Du Bois Institute’s show, which coincides with the 20th anniversary of the artist’s death, is the first major solo exhibit of Fani-Kayode’s work in the United States. It was developed as a retrospective, said Mussai, incorporating a variety of photos ranging from his early career to those shot during the last years of his life. Mussai hopes the exhibit will not only expose a new audience to Fani-Kayode’s work, but also encourage a broad discourse.

“Fani-Kayode’s photographs draw upon a plethora of image references and a multiplicity of sources that defy a linear reading or easy categorization.

“I am hoping to be able to take viewers to a place that opens up and encourages a dialogue, a debate: to provide the audience with an intimate glimpse into the complexities Fani-Kayode was dealing with in his work.”

The heart of the exhibit revolves around six large-scale color photographs produced at the end of the artist’s career, between 1988 and 1989, as part of two major bodies of work, “Ecstatic Antibodies” and “Bodies of Experience.” The show also includes a series of 10 black-and-white photographs ranging in size, as well as a 10-minute video that features a series of additional images as well as excerpts of the artist’s writings.

A gallery talk featuring comments from Gates, Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research; Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP; and Mussai will take place in early March.