Happy Pride Month!!
Every year, in honor of the June 28th, 1969, Stonewall riots in New York, the global LGBTQ+ community takes one whole month to celebrate their radical existence. Inspired by the incendiary riots in Greenwich, New York — against police raids and prejudice, by the LGBTQ+ community and activists, June officially became, just like Black History Month, the official month chose to celebrate our existence, how far we’ve come, and the journey ahead.
In Nigeria, on the other hand, we are still stuck in an era akin to the period before the riots. With laws working against the community; widely celebrated homophobia; and near-zero tolerance, the journey towards liberation and true freedom for queer Nigerians seems like a mirage. No, we can’t take to the streets to celebrate like our friends outside of here. But that wouldn’t stop us at A Nasty Boy from celebrating Pride Month the best way we know how, by celebrating people and their stories.
Each week will feature a profile on a Nigerian LGBTQ+ icon who inspires and fights for equality and others by way of their work and art.
Born in 1955 to the influential Fani Kayode family, Oluwarotimi Adebiyi Wahab Fani-Kayode better known as Rotimi Fani-Kayode was a world-renowned Nigerian photographer and artist. Forced to migrate to the UK to seek asylum with his family at age 12 due to the Civil War of the 60s, Rotimi had his early education in the UK before making a move to Georgetown University, Washington DC, for a BA in Fine Arts and then got an MFA from the Pratt Institute, New York, in 1983.
For Rotimi, coming out to his parent was a huge turning point in his life as the rejection he faced spurred his move to the US for his education and, eventual meeting with Robert Mapplethorpe who served as a major influence on Rotimi’s future work. His separation from his country Nigeria, sexuality and the disappointment his parent showed at his chosen career path, helped create a sense of otherness which according to Rotimi, in a piece for the publication Ten 8, shaped his work.
The bulk of his work which was created from 1982 – 1989 used images of black men to explore the complex relationship between erotic fantasy, black masculinity, religion, sexuality, racism, and colonialism. His family, strongly grounded in worshipping Ifa (a religion and system of divination) had instilled the age-old tradition and cultural practice in Rotimi from a young age. Being a young gay man immersed in that rich culture, he attempted to confront the boundaries set between religion and sexuality through his work.
In a time when homosexuals were ignored and dismissed as non-existent, Rotimi used his work as a weapon to reveal people’s truth and show that it wasn’t a “white man’s thing” but rather a part of being human just like heterosexuality, especially in a time when it wasn’t even spoken of. His pictures, though explicit, were not exploitative or vulgar; rather, they were nuanced, complex and mentally arousing. Noticing a vacuum in black male photography that wasn’t sexualized or fetishized, he produced pieces that pushed for conversations and challenged us as a people.
Also an avid supporter of black rights and equality, Rotimi was a co-founder of the Autograph ABP (Association of Black British Photographers) which helped push art from people of color in the UK. Moving back to the UK with his partner Alex Hirst, he continued to put out work until his passing in 1989 at the young age of 34 from AIDs related heart attack.
Across Africa as a whole, Homosexuality was (and is still) viewed as a depraved, abominable “way” of life. This consensus, whether we believe it or not, is further aggravated by religion especially in Nigeria where all seem to agree on one thing – HOMOSEXUALITY IS A SIN! This narrative has constantly plagued queer Africans, particularly those of Nigerian descent. Reconciling the religious dogmas that we were fed growing up with our sexuality, and sexual liberation has always been a struggle. From the start, we are declared an anomaly, a disgrace to mankind, and our creator, but most importantly not worthy of love or acceptance.
Rotimi’s work shone a light on this conflict between religion, culture, and sexuality in a way no other artist before him had. By showing the Nigerian queer community at the time that they were not alone and their desires were valid and not abominable, he did more than he intended by sparking that conversation.
With exhibitions all over the world including South Africa, it’s rather unsettling that Rotimi’s work hasn’t been showcased on his own soil in Nigeria. We can only hope that this is rectified as now more than ever, the beauty and message behind his work are needed. Till date, his pieces remain politically contentious.
Moving forward and celebrating pride month, we acknowledge the mastery and bravery of Rotimi Fani-Kayode.