By Adebayo Quadry-Adekanbi
With thanks to Dan Vo
This blog post aims to serve as a guide for our journey of disrupting, reconceptualising and re-queering Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s works. In a podcast episode with queer/disrupt, Dan Vo and I delve into Fani-Kayode’s pieces and attempt to reconceptualise them from a perspective that has decentred Western paradigms. We explore various pictures, so I thought it would be best to provide a post that allows you to follow along without having to search for each picture we discuss. Dan was kind enough to not only join me but guide me on this journey of rediscovering and reconceptualising Fani-Kayode’s works. Before listening to the podcast episode, I urge you to read this short essay. This will help you follow along with the podcast when we begin discussing the images, and provide the context and perspective of this podcast.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode is a world-renowned photographer, whose works have shaped Western conceptualisations of Black gay bodies. I use the word “is” and not “was”, because while Fani-Kayode is no longer with us, his legacy transcends his physical presence in our world. He is no longer with us, but his works’ relevance, beauty, and quality hold up till today. They remain in the realms of our consciousness long after his death in 1989 at a young age of 34. This is evidenced with how his works are still being displayed in exhibitions till this very day. He is still with us.
The overt reading of sex and sexuality in Fani-Kayode’s works almost overshadows the embedded consciousness and memory of indigenous Yoruba paradigms in his works. Due to the constrictions of Western articulation of non-Western practices, we are often guilty of limiting the scope with which we understand art presented to us by non-Western people. For this specific reason, this podcast and blogpost exist to reconceptualise and re-queer Fani-Kayode’s works on terms that have decentred Western paradigms and understood queer possibilities outside of the limited scope of Western articulation.
Thanks to Foucault and Butler and their poststructuralist presentation of queerness, the West has managed to begin catching up to queer possibilities embedded in the culture, history and practices of indigenous non-Western cultures. However, not only is this limited within Western consciousness, but the crediting of queer theory to Western postmodern scholars is an unfair perpetuation of the erasure of non-Western voices in global discourse. For this reason, although I invoke a lot of poststructuralist theories, I refuse the urge to label this poststructuralist. I would instead label it as a centring of African paradigms. To call it poststructuralist is to give the West credit for knowledge and practices that they regarded as unworthy, primitive, and archaic until they decided it was not. Non-Western thinkers have also articulated this before the language of poststructuralism and queer theory was attached and credited to the West.
Much of the knowledge used in reconceptualising Fani-Kayode’s works have come from one of my favourite academics, authors and thinkers, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí. Oyèwùmí’s Invention of Women (Invention) (Oyewumi, 1997) and What Gender is Motherhood (Motherhood) (Oyewumi, 2016) have heavily influenced this podcast. Invention deeply explores the construction of gender and sex among the Oyo, Yoruba community and Motherhood explores the concept of motherhood and aims to situate this outside of the gendered nature that is proliferated globally by the West. For a more substantial understanding of the themes I discuss here, I urge you to read these books.
Before we begin delving into the podcast, I would like to clarify an error, that even I am unfortunately not beyond committing, and I commit through this podcast. While I use the term “gods” to reference the Òrìṣàs I was referring to; this is a reduction of how the Òrìṣàs are conceptualised in Yoruba culture. Òrìṣàs are often conceptualised as exceptional beings who, after spending their time on earth are deified to maintain their presence and representations on earth. The word deity is probably a better choice of words, than god, which is often used as an English counterpart, but probably an obfuscation of what they are. This was also not to gender the term with the implicit male burden it carries. Unfortunately, communicating these in English makes it difficult to maintain their complexity. Through this podcast, we will see how much language plays a part in understanding cultural practices.
I would like to clarify that the aim of this podcast is not to interrogate Fani-Kayode’s intentions, but to interrogate how we read his works. Hopefully, this will provide new ways to reconceptualise creatives’ works from outside of our paradigms.
You may begin listening to the podcast now. Enjoy!
Image One – Nothing to Lose XII, 1989
Image Two – Barbican Masculinities Exhibition
Image Three – Bronze Head, 1987
Hirst’s comment on Bronze Head (Hirst, 1990):
In Bronze Head Rotimi is ‘giving birth’ to an Ife bronze. Ife, the cradle of an ancient Yoruba culture, is also his city of origin. The head, ori, which for the Yoruba is the seat of the spirit, orisha, represents a god. Symbolically, the artist is transforming his old culture into contemporary terms, having understood that the old values no longer “work” but still have power as archetypes. Also, he is presenting his rear-end, a traditional affront to the powers that be. The image contains the idea of the head as a “higher phallus,” penetrating and fecundating the artist. although a man, destined to penetrate the depths of the unconscious, here the artist is also a feminine “receiver” who is fertilised by it and thus able to bring forth a “son” of God
Image Four – Nothing to Lose IX (Bodies of Experience), 1989
Image Five – Adebiyi, 1989
Fani-Kayode’s comment on the significance of masks in his essay, Traces of Ecstacy (1988):
In African traditional art, the mask does not represent a material reality; rather, the artist strives to approach a spiritual reality in it through images suggested by human and animal forms. I think photography can aspire to the same imaginative interpretations of life. My reality is not the same as that which is often presented to us in western photographs. As an African working in a western medium, I try to bring out the spiritual dimension in my pictures so that concepts of reality become ambiguous and are opened to reinterpretation. This requires what Yoruba priests and artists call a technique of ecstasy.
Fani-Kayode’s conceptualisation of Esu in his Abiku – Born to Die exhibition (Fani-Kayode, 1988):
Esu presides here, because we should not forget him. He is the trickster, the Lord of the Crossroads, sometimes changing the signposts to lead us astray. At every masquerade (which is now sometimes called Carnevale–a farewell to flesh for the period of fasting) he is present, showing off his phallus one minute and crouching as though to give birth the next. He mocks us as we mock ourselves in masquerade. But while our mockery is joyful, his is potentially sinister…We fear that under the influence of Esu’s mischief our masquerade children will have a difficult birth or will be born sickly. Perhaps they are Abiku–born to die. They may soon return to their friends in the spirit world, those whom they cannot forget. We see them here beneath the caul of the amniotic sac or with the umbilical cord around their neck or wrist. We see their struggle for survival in the face of great forces…These images are offered now to Esu because he presides here. It is perhaps through him that rebirth will occur.
Image Six – Nothing to Lose I, 1989
Image Seven – The Golden Phallus, 1989
References and additional resources:
Fani-Kayode, R., 1988. Abiku – Born to Die. In: K. Smith & K. Love, eds. The Invisible Man, exhibition brochure. London: Goldsmiths Gallery.
Hirst, A., 1990. Unacceptable Behaviour: A Memoir. In: Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Photographer (1955-1989): A Retrospective. London: 198 Gallery.
Oyewumi, O., 1997. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Oyewumi, O., 2002. Conceptualizing gender: the Eurocentric foundations of feminist concepts and the challenge of African epistemologies. Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, 2(1).
Oyewumi, O., 2016. What Gender is Motherhood?. 1 ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.
Thompson, R. F., 1984. Flash of the Spirit: Afro-American Art and Philosophy. 1 ed. New York: Vintage Books.