Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Tranquility of Communion @Hales New York

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 1987 and 1989 and printed in 2021. Each of the prints is sized 48×48 inches, and is available in an edition of 10. The show has been organized in collaboration with Autograph London. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It seems likely that in this inclusive cultural moment where a wider range of personal identities are being more fully embraced that the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989) will find a receptive audience. The Nigerian-born photographer made self-portraits that probe the depths of his own complicated status as an outsider, weaving together layered facets of geography, gender, race, sexuality, and spirituality into his stylized aesthetic. This show of the artist’s late color work follows up a notable 2018 gallery show (reviewed here) focused on Fani-Kayode’s black and white imagery, the two shows combining to provide a succinct introduction to his unique artistic voice.

Fani-Kayode’s color photographs build on the formal simplicity of his work in black and white, taking that structural elegance and amplifying it with more seductively performative setups. The works begin and end with the artist’s Black body set against a dark golden backdrop, the lighting creating a shadowy chiaroscuro glow not unlike that seen in Old Masters paintings. Fani-Kayode’s burnished body is consistently warm and tactile, its smooth shades of brown honeyed by the soft light.

Using a range of simple but evocative props, he then creates a series of imaginary scenes, where fragments of his identity come forward, intermingling to evoke his erotic and spiritual urges. Traditional body paint, floral crowns, and African masks are interchangeably brought together with natural fruits, vegetables, and leaves to build up most of the compositions, with black leather fetish gear and lush robes introduced to twist a few of the scenes in different thematic directions.

While many of Fani-Kayode’s setups seem designed to exaggerate their dramatic effect, most actually feel wholly internal, as though he is looking deeply inside himself – Fani-Kayode never engages with the camera directly, his gaze either locked into his activities, aimed elsewhere offstage, or covered by the blinding effect of hands or wrapped cloth. Whether in contemplation, experimentation, or ecstasy, his attention is always centered and reverent, seemingly in search of elusive personal truths.

Several of his compositions feature allusions to Christian symbols, both allegorical and as interpreted by past painters. Dark monk’s robes and a lovely textural fall of virginal blue drapery make appearances, as do certain identifiable gestures, from the particular twist of a pointing hand and the gentle touch on the top of an expectant head to the set up of eating a fruit blindly, as in Eden.

This Western influence (Fani-Kayode moved to England when he left Nigeria during the outbreak of civil war there, and then moved on to America where he studied at university, before returning to London in the early 1980s) is then balanced and recalibrated by Fani-Kayode’s widespread use of potent African symbols, like masks, ceremonial shells and beads, and body paint. Particular respect and veneration is applied to the masks, which are either worn (thereby becoming inextricably linked to his own personality), cradled with care, or bowed down to in totem-like form in something approximating worship. In Adebiyi, Fani-Kayode seems to have entered a kind of trance-like state interacting with one of the masks, his gentle movement almost like a dance.

The body and face paint seen in many of the images brings Fani-Kayode back to the rhythms of traditional rituals, where dances, trials, and other ceremonies might have marked the coming of age, marriage, or other transitional points along the path of masculinity. Two works find the artist with his penis painted gold, and Fani-Kayode balances these with the insertion of shiny chrome studded leather masks, harnesses, and gloves that allude to his homosexuality, creating a visual dialogue of conflicted desires. Other charged works find Fani-Kayode open mouthed and expectant, alternately lapping up the invisible juices flowing from a green leaf and an incongruously symbolic microphone, or muscularly curved with the dripping juices of grapes and a lemon (like a still life) settled into his crotch.

Many of the works in this show are titled Nothing to Lose, and that risk-taking, almost fatalistic, sentiment rings through this powerful iterative study of self –  in these later color works, Fani-Kayode has made a probingly imaginative investigation of his Blackness, his maleness, and his sexuality, in search of devotional answers to his impulses, desires, and fears. His lush photographic results lay bare the conflicts he’s wrestling with, offering us a chance to witness the torments and struggles of reconciling his different identities.

Collector’s POV: Each of the works in the show is priced at $15000. Fani-Kayode’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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