Dr. Ian Barnard, Professor and Director of LGBTQ StudiesRotimi Fani-Kayode’s photographs included in Chapman University’s wonderful Begin/Again: Marking Black Memories exhibit, together with the terrific contextual material provided by curators Lindsay Shen and Jessica Bocinski, quickly traced a line for me from my growing up white in apartheid South Africa, to my time as a queer graduate student in the US at the onset of the AIDS pandemic in the shadow of Reagan, to my current teaching of queer theory and the history of AIDS art and activism at Chapman under the blight of Trump. Fani-Kayode’s work has often been compared to that of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs my students and I visited at the Getty Center in 2016, and who has weathered shifting critical tides: Mapplethorpe was initially hailed as groundbreaking, then criticized as racist, only to be reevaluated again (more generously) in the light of the censorship that followed his notorious Perfect Moment exhibit in 1989.
Fani-Kayode’s 1980 photo In Gods We Trust could be about (and could embody) many things, but it’s definitely about race. Race now, and race in 1980. However, I also share Kobena Mercer’s insistence on the homoeroticism of Fani-Kayode’s work, and so read in this photograph an exposure of the ways in which pleasure, aesthetics (the symmetry of the lines, the beauty of the body, the clarity of the black and white, and even the photographic image itself), coloniality, a controlling white gaze, longing and resistance (the Black gaze looking beyond the boundaries of the white arms), and a subjugated or self-colonized Black gaze (the chains are gone but the hands are still “cuffed”) can be co-imbricated in homoerotic desire. Queerness does not inhabit a space outside race and racism. This critique was largely missing from Mapplethorpe’s work.
But representations of Black queer gazes and desires have also exponentially multiplied and complicated since Fani-Kayode’s untimely AIDS-related death in 1989 at the age of 34. Inter-racial desire, of course, is inevitably contaminated by the history of coloniality, especially when one of the parties is white, but desire does not (and cannot) always conform to prescribed political trajectories. In my Film, Gender, Sexuality class this semester, we’ll be watching “The Attendant,” a 1992 experimental short film by queer Black British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien, a contemporary of Fani-Kayode, that uses BDSM to reimagine the memory and aesthetics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in order to create a space of agency for Black queer desire. This is controversial and difficult art, and speaks to the importance and significance of diversifying and amplifying representations of queer Black desire, work that continues to be undertaken by Black queer artists today.
Vesper North, Student, MFA Creative Writing & MA English Literature“des peintures”
marble skin—soft as silk
(selon vos normes
and hatred si lourd)
dropping the veil over my spirit
clinging to me—suffocating me
mud slapped on my soul like paint
blind eyes everywhere
avoiding what disgusts
wilted sentiment in august
can never tear away
mon amour ne disparaîtra jamais
Karina Cardena, Student, ENG 472: Film, Gender, and SexualityWhen I look at this piece of art, I see the pain and hostility "as an African working in a Western medium". I am deeply moved by this photograph, it is simple and clear yet is screaming pain and oppression. This piece of art almost reminds me of the infatuation with Black culture by white people; cultural thieves. Popular culture in America today is directly rooted in Black culture. We listen to Black artists, wear clothing inspired by Black culture, use slang conceived by the Black community, capitalize on Black beauty trends. But then stay silent when Black people are being killed.
Jessica Quintos, Student, ENG 472: Film, Gender, and SexualityRotimi Fani Kayode’s, In God's Trust, is a stunning photograph of sharp contrasting lights and shadows. It appears as though the black man is covered by the whiteness of Western culture; actively being hidden and pulled away from view. The man has a strong build and holds his hands up in fists towards his neck almost appearing in a prayer position, but bound by invisible restraints. His posture presents him in a vulnerable state. Racism has evolved in different forms and although we do not see physical restraints, his arms are still bound by western culture that continues to silence black people. The black man’s persona and his sexuality remains covered by white hands like a blindfold. I think about how in today’s mainstream media, there is this sort of performative activism in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement. A white-cis person will recite a story of a black queer experience and recieve greater attention for the “act of caring,” despite not practicing what they preach. In this sense, the black queer experience is continually silenced and hidden when it is covered by white-cis narratives. Essentially black queer people are having their stories told for them. Although, not all people are performative in their activism, it is important for people to understand what it is to be an ally and to raise up black voices instead of taking it. I feel that Fani-Kayode’s work speaks volumes from the time it was created and still ever more now in society.
Rotimi Fani Kayode’s, In God's Trust, is a stunning photograph of sharp contrasting lights and shadows. It appears as though the black man is covered by the whiteness of Western culture; actively being hidden and pulled away from view. The man has a strong build and holds his hands up in fists towards his neck almost appearing in a prayer position, but bound by invisible restraints. His posture presents him in a vulnerable state. Racism has evolved in different forms and although we do not see physical restraints, his arms are still bound by western culture that continues to silence black people. The black man’s persona and his sexuality remains covered by white hands like a blindfold. I think about how in today’s mainstream media, there is this sort of performative activism in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement. A white-cis person will recite a story of a black queer experience and recieve greater attention for the “act of caring,” despite not practicing what they preach. In this sense, the black queer experience is continually silenced and hidden when it is covered by white-cis narratives. Essentially black queer people are having their stories told for them. Although, not all people are performative in their activism, it is important for people to understand what it is to be an ally and to raise up black voices instead of taking it. I feel that Fani-Kayode’s work speaks volumes from the time it was created and still ever more now in society.
While viewing Fani Kayode’s Untitled photograph, I perceived similar interpretations to the first photo. The black man is crouching down towards the floor and appears small and protective of his own body; coddled in the comfort of himself. The tension on his feet is visible. In this white space, he is made out to be small. His experiences as a black queer person is not a light matter, so he carries the heavy weight on his shoulders down to his toes.
Gabrielle, ENG 472: Film, Gender, and Sexuality"In God We Trust" evokes the concept that those in western culture, but not having originated from said culture, are "shielded" from their spirituality of their motherland. I also think the piece "Untitled", is the outcome of what Rotimi-Fani-Kayode spoke about concerning the act of reclaiming the sexualization of black bodies in white media. You have a Black man photographed against a white background, nude, but not sexualized.
Lavender Ruffman, ENG 472: Film, Gender, and SexualityI found the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode to be extremely powerful, especially when offered synchronously with his personal story which the work serves to reflect.
Fani-Kayode’s work parallels his words about being an outsider and the hardships that come with that, but they also show the freedom Fani-Kayode discusses too when he claimed that his position (as a queer, black artist) provided a “feeling of having very little to lose…a sense of freedom from the hegemony of convention…
The piece In Gods We Trust shines a light on these contrasting emotions. In it, a black man holds his fists clenched, close to his chest, his body both closed off from his posture, and open and free due to his presumed nudity. Behind him, white hands come from the darkness and mask the man’s eyes. This photo emphasizes the feelings of otherness and isolation that can arise when living in a white-dominated world. It alludes to how black people are often made smaller as a result of white people’s actions, and can be masked off or closed off to the world or feeling free. The title suggests a diverge from the western perspective of religion, which has a history of racism and homophobia, by having a plural go Gods. In this image, despite being blinded by white hands, there is a sense of spirituality and strength that surpasses the white experience, which creates the free feeling Fani-Kayode discussed.
Ellie Nguyen, Student, ENG 472: Film, Gender, and SexualityObserving the works of Rotimi Fani-Kayode left a very strong impact on me. Photography and its ability to translate different emotions and reflect on different times’ social climate is something I find remarkable and inspiring. In Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s piece titled “In Gods We Trust” we see a monotoned photo of a black queer man, his face towards the sky while a pair of white arms, much in contrast with his skin tone and the dark backdrop, are covering his vision. I found the piece extremely captivating in the many unique ways the viewers could interpret the image. It is ambiguous in form yet it could be read in various ways. For me, I related the piece to the black, queer experience that is very much underrepresented in mainstream media. Taking into account the medium that Rotimi Fani-Kayode worked with, I read it as the dominating white narrative casting a barrier to those belong to LGBTQA+ people of color. His hands are bound and fisted, as if he is tied down by this pressure of societal discrimination. But simultaneously, the hands gave me a sense of hopefulness and yearning while he faces up blindly into the unknown future. I thought it was a powerful piece, as well as “Untitled.” The man is seen naked in front of the camera, in front of the audience yet he is mostly concealed in shadow, and his eyes are also covered. The audience is can see everything yet they don’t know anything about him and his experience.
Kaylen Ng, Student, HON 210: Monsters and MonstrositiesThe works in the gallery that spoke to me the most were that of Rotimi Fani-Kayode. His photographs capture the black queer experience and as such, they are extremely prevalent to today’s social climate. While many members of the queen community are ostracized, one of the largest groups to be discriminated against are black trans women. In his work In Gods We Trust, he showcases a black queer man being blinded by white hands. This is representative of how the black queer experience is consistently being hidden from mainstream media and news by that of the white experience, and even when the black man is at his most vulnerable and exposed, he is still not seen. At the same time, Rotimi is playing with this idea that the black body is portrayed as the victim in media by reclaiming the idea as his own and showing the dichotomy between the man’s hidden yet visible state. While the man looks like he’s cowering down, he also looks like he’s about to break free. With the idea of understanding the queer community as a whole, it is not enough to have white bodies be the only face of the movement. The basis of many of the gay rights movements such as Stonewall come from the black community and as such, it is of upmost importance to incorporate black memories into the history of the community. Rotimi shows that art gives people the ability to reclaim and repurpose what other have given. Bad labels and names can be used for good and given a new meaning through art.
Ethan Dickinson, Student, HON 210: Monsters and MonstrositiesWhile taking this virtual tour, I found myself most deeply moved by the art of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a man using what the article refers to as "a Western medium" to capture his own queer sexuality. In pieces like In Gods We Trust and Untitled, he uses a monochromatic greyscale palette to capitalize on negative space and juxtapose skin tone versus skin tone. In a way, he also uses his greyscale palette to emphasize what I can only guess to be "otherness," the concept derived from Yoruba spirituality mentioned in the excerpt, creating a barrier between the audience and the piece, despite the obvious vulnerability and accessibility in the pieces. Yet, the most captivating element of his pieces is the eroticism: in one, a naked man; in the other, white hands blindfolding a naked black man, hands held together as if restrained by invisible shackles. Even at his most vulnerable, naked and on camera, the white man still controls the black man's sexuality, hiding it from the public eye and treating it as if it doesn't exist, something characteristic even of modern queer movements. It was inspiring to see a gay black man openly creating this provocative art in the 1980s, unafraid to step on toes or make his viewers uncomfortable, but unashamedly opening the public's eyes to a large group of people who went for so long unheard.
Vikram Branch, Student, HON 210: Monsters and MonstrositiesI found Rotimi Fani-Kayode's art to be the most compelling. Like Kaylen, I really liked the photo of a black man with white hands over his eyes. I appreciate how this work is very simple and clear, but still has very strong and interesting messages. I interpret the hands as representi g the ways that white-dominated media and culture obscure black and gay people's worth and power. The image looks pretty dark, but I find some optimism in it. The man's facial expression indicates he is recognizing how he is being abused, and is ready to fight back. The man looks very muscular and strong, able to fight the hands on his face. What I find most interesting is the man's hands. They are posed in the classic "shackled slave" gesture, even though he is not shackled, probably because he can't see. His ability to resist the oppression is greater than even he knows, and the time is running out for his oppressors. This art separately contributes to loosening the metaphorical hands with a portrayal of strength directly countering the blinding white culture. This is the way that art can change situations: by spreading awareness of situations that powers in society would like to hide from people.
Chloe Stricker, Student, HON 210: Monsters and MonstrositiesIn looking through each artist's works in the gallery, I am most captivated by the repeated idea of using art to reclaim a narrative- to rewrite one's story. I noticed this particularly in Ivan Forde's work, where he borrows imagery from other famous works in order to tell his own story. I noticed it again in Rotimi Fani-Kayode's work where he uses a traditionally Western medium to reclaim his space in a world where his story is perpetually told for him, without him. I believe art has the power to shape our perceptions of reality and to force us to think in new ways. This gallery certainly illustrates how various black artists are reclaiming the narrative by using various artistic mediums to imagine their individual places in this world and to tell their stories in their own authentic voices. I think we as individuals can incorporate "black memories" into our lives by seeking out works of art such as books, poems, paintings, drawings, sculptures, movies, plays, etc. where black artists have the chance to illustrate their own realities and dreams. As a bit of an aside, I would argue that one of the most important (and most forgotten) steps of consuming art is paying artists for their labor. While it is very important to diversify the stream of media you consume so as not to fall into the trap of a single story, it is equally as important to compensate the artists whose work you are viewing and learning from. Black people, and particularly black artists in the context of this discussion, are not free learning or anti-racism resources. They are people who deserve to be compensated for their labor which others so freely enjoy.
Trisha Gautam, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourismRotimi Fani-Kayode's story impressed upon me a vision of a life of constant rejection. Forced to leave his own homeland and entering one that did not accept who he is, Fani-Kayode remained an outsider. Despite his hardships, Fani-Kayode was courageous enough to raise his voice and relate his own experiences through his photography. He is a pioneer of the normalization of queer black people, who often struggle with extremely homophobic home lives and are unaccepted by the world outside their homes because of the color of their skin.
What struck me about Fani-Kayode's work is the simultaneous honesty and ambiguity of it. His overall message is starkly apparent, yet the nuances of the story he is trying to convey remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. For example, in In Gods We Trust, the naked and seemingly vulnerable black man has his eyes covered by white hands, implying at first glance that black immigrants are forced to put a considerable amount of trust in the white people who think of Britain as their own home, and no one else's. My interpretation of the nuances of the story once I contemplate further become far more complicated. The name of the piece insinuates that there is more than one god, which may be a call back to Fani-Kayode's Yoruban roots. The white hands are the ones with the power in this piece, so it can be inferred that the "Gods" Fani-Kayode is referring to are the white people who rule over the new life his family has in Britain. At the same time, I believe that he is calling out the irony among the white people, who insist on lording over and oppressing black people in British society. Although the white people are largely monotheistic, they are becoming what they themselves would call "pagan" or "primitive" by making themselves Gods and lords of others, therefore constructing a sort of polytheistic religion that black people must follow. In addition to this interpretation, I have another less developed one that interprets this piece as inherently sexual, which may depict the speaker's struggle with attraction to those he would call oppressors.
Although Fani-Kayode is inviting people to view and wallow in the grim darkness of his works, I am not sure that this counts as dark tourism. My mind may change in the next few months, but I believe that the setting in which the artist presents their work largely contributes to the classification of dark tourism. In a gallery advertised and sponsored by Chapman, I approach this with the mindset of a scholar. I am someone who must listen and not interject with my own experiences in order to educate myself on these issues. If I were a casual tourist encountering this work in a museum of queer or black history in Britain, however, I may become more fascinated with the details of Fani-Kayode's life, and less so with his work itself.
Bryce Kauffman, Student, HON 338: ThanaTourismOut of the pieces shown in this virtual exhibit, those by Rotimi Fani-Kayode strike a particular chord with me as a bisexual person and pull the heartstrings of my empathy tied to my queer identity. The gay community as I have experienced still shakes with the echos of the Aids crisis's traumatic stress which the community bares. An aspect of this pain spoke to me in the tensed feet of the model in the work "Untitled" poised as if to run. The gay community was left out in the wild to die as the HIV virus tore through communities. I would hope that some people look at this and feel guilt, I do in recognition of my privilege to not have to confront race in my daily life and pass for straight to the people close to me to avoid making some of my close family members uncomfortable. To be gay or black in society requires that you be on your toes, prepared for the lashings of the ruling socioeconomic racial group. The hand resting over the tensed clavicle, soothing the pain of existence.
Simply taking one conscious moment to recognize the structural restrictions that are placed upon black performers and doubly so on artists because they are not only black but their art is often pushing a non-eurocentric message and presenting the black perspective. I cannot accurately say what may result from a greater representation of black artists but with a small amount of mental effort it can help the general attitude towards minorities and help to deconstruct harmful stereotypes.
This could certainly be considered dark tourism as much of black artist's work is used to emphasize the struggles of persistent oppressive forces.
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