Photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode It still needs saying: black men can desire each other

Rotimi Fani-Kayode
Rotimi Fani-Kayode | Photo: Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Almost three decades after photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s death, Traces of Ecstasy is both a sobering reminder of socio-political inertia and what Fani-Kayode intended it to be: “an imaginative investigation of Blackness, maleness and sexuality”.

Nowadays, every time I open a newspaper or news website, tune into a radio or TV bulletin, or check my twitter feed, the title of Sipho Sepamla’s poem “Da Same, Da Same” echoes in my mind. Is it just me, or is the South African news cycle a bit “samey”?

Oscar Pistorius, Shrien Dewani, Nkandla. Throw in a ministerial gaffe, a story of government misspending, a Democratic Alliance PR blunder, a bit of Economic Freedom Fighters rhetoric, a service delivery protest, a labour dispute, an incident of police brutality, the clandestine workings of the ruling alliance ... and you’ve got yourself a front-page formula.

Indeed, it seems like we’re in a holding pattern. Certain issues come and go and return and fade: e-tolls, rhino poaching, crises in education and health. Things will develop a little more focus in the run-up to the general election next month. And then it will be more of the same.

On the surface, there’s something rather depressing in this. If South Africa were a music album, we’d be repeating the same track on a permanent loop. Alternatively, to cast it in narrative terms, one might say that the country’s story is in need of plot development.

But the fact is that epoch-defining people and events are not often discernible at the time. The “Mandela moment” was a rarity. The historians of the future may write about what happened, or didn’t happen, under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, but these controversial presidents will probably only be casual markers in a long post-apartheid trajectory.

That doesn’t mean we should be apathetic about or indifferent to the egregious dealings of Number One. On the contrary, Zuma and his cronies should be held directly liable for their role in stalling South Africa’s revolution: they have resisted real change, denying the “sameness” that Sepamla was actually writing about (“one man no diflent to anader”, his quirky speaker intones, irrespective of race – or class, or other demographic signifiers for that matter).

Visitors to the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town might feel a dispiriting sense of social stasis when they read the wall text introducing Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Traces of Ecstasy, which is on display until 15th May. Fani-Kayode, who died in 1989 at the age of 34, was a Nigerian-born photographer who was based in the United States and Britain for most of his life. It is perhaps not surprising that he was preoccupied by what he saw as the tension between Western and African world views, religious practices and artistic techniques.

As a gay man, he also chose to use his photography “not just as an instrument, but as a weapon ... to resist attacks on my integrity”.

Fani-Kayode’s 1988 statement about Traces of Ecstasy is a manifesto very much of its time – a response to the Thatcherite government – and, even though a number of the works in the exhibition merge European and African iconography, he tends to reinforce a “Western versus non-Western” essentialist binary that now seems somewhat dated. But it also reads like a contemporary challenge.

“Black men from the Third World”, the artist complains, have denied “a certain shocking fact: they can desire each other”. Despite the suppression of homosexuality “by the Church and State ... it is clear that enriching sexual relationships between members of the same sex have always existed.” Sadly, this is a message that needs repeating again and again across the African continent.

Fani-Kayode also bemoans “the exploitative mythologising of Black virility” and “the vulgar objectification of Africa” in “the ‘victim’ images which appear constantly in the media”. The creativity of the Yoruba people is simultaneously “prized for its exotic appeal” and “consigned by the West to museums of ‘primitive’ art and culture”.

Yoruban belief systems are “treated as no more than a bizarre superstition”.

Here, again, is a critique that is still apposite in the twenty-first century.

Polemic and provocation aside, the photographs themselves make striking use of colour and contrast to command the viewer’s attention; there are some quite beautiful images. Almost three decades on, Traces of Ecstasy is both a sobering reminder of socio-political inertia and what Fani-Kayode intended it to be: “an imaginative investigation of Blackness, maleness and sexuality”.

The Rotimi Fani-Kayode retrospective Traces of Ecstasy was on display at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town from 12.02.2014 – 11.05.2014. The exhibition was supported by the Goethe-Institut. Nigerian-born Fani-Kayode (1955-1989) was a founding member of Autograph ABP, the London-based Association of Black Photographers.

First published in Business Day on 10.04.2014.