Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in Lagos in 1955 to a politically powerful family. His father was Chief Remi Fani-Kayode – a prominent Yoruba chief, lawyer, and political leader.
In 1966, at the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war, his father’s role as a politician caused them to flee the country for Britain. Rotimi was 12 years old at the time.
He was brought up in Brighton in the United Kingdom before moving to the USA, in 1976, to study at Georgetown University and the Pratt Institute where he began to develop his interest in photography.
Rotimi was openly gay. In 1983, he returned to the UK and made a home in Brixton, South London, with his lover and collaborator Alex Hirst.
He expressed his sexuality in his photography. He also interwove his various identities – black, African, and gay in his work.
The Nigerian photographer explored the tensions created by his sexuality, race and culture through stylized portraits and compositions.
His works were mainly sensual, and addressed issues of sexuality and race, but of nationality. The son of a Yoruba chief introduced elements of his culture into his art.
Writing for now-defunct British photography magazine Ten.8, he once described himself as an outsider “on three counts.”
He compared his own work to that of the Osogbo artists of Yorubaland, Nigeria, who in the 1960s resisted neo-colonialism and celebrated the “secret world” of their ancestors.
“I make my pictures homosexual on purpose. Black men from the Third World have not previously revealed either to their own peoples or to the West a certain shocking fact: they can desire each other.”
Fani-Kayode tapped into the turbulence of the gay community – which at the time was facing both the rise of HIV/AIDS and ostracism.
On 21 December 1989, Fani-Kayode died in a London hospital of a heart attack while recovering from an AIDS-related illness. He was age 34.
At the time of his death, he was living in Brixton, London, with his gay partner and collaborator Alex Hirst, the British photographer and films, who also died in 1994.
During his life, Rotimi Fani-Kayode struggled to find acceptance.
He left behind a body of work that was unashamedly black, African, and gay, showing a tender, sensuous, fantastical image of masculinity, that was always thoroughly political.
His younger brother, Femi Fani-Kayode, later became Nigeria’s Minister for Aviation.
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