Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in Lagos, Nigeria in April 1955, the second child of Chief Babaremilekun Adetokunboh Fani-Kayode and Chief Mrs Adia Adunni Fani-Kayode, their third child was Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian politician and who was the former Minister of Aviation for Nigeria.
This prominent Yoruba family moved to Brighton, England, in 1966, after a military coup and the ensuing civil war. Rotimi pursued his secondary education in England where he went to a number of private schools including Brighton college, Seabright College and Millfield then moved to the USA in 1976 to complete his education. He read Fine Arts and Economics, gaining a BA, at Georgetown University, Washington DC and gained an MFA at the Pratt Institute, New York in Fine Arts & Photography. Whilst in New York he became friendly with Robert Mapplethorpe and later admitted to Mapplethorpe’s influence on his work.
He returned to the UK in 1983. He died in a London hospital of a heart attack whilst recovering from an AIDS related illness on the December 12, 1989. At the time of his death, he was living in Brixton, London with his partner and collaborator Alex Hirst.
Although admitting to some influence by Mapplethorpe’s earlier work, Rotimi Fani-Kayode pushed the bounds of his own art much further, exploring sexuality, racism, colonialism and the tensions and conflicts between his homosexuality and his Yoruba upbringing through a series of images in both colour and B/W.
His work is imbued with the subtelty, irony and political and social comment that one would expect from an intelligent and observant black photographer of the late twentieth century. He also contributed much to the artistic debate around HIV and AIDS.
He started to exhibit in 1984 and was involved with nine exhibitions between then and his death at the end of 1989. He has since had his work featured posthumously in many exhibitions and retrospectives. His work has been exhibited in the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Italy, Nigeria, Sweden, Germany, South Africa and US. In 1987 along with Mark Sealy he co-founded AUTOGRAPH ABP and became their first Chair. He was also an active member of The Black Audio Film Collective.
He was a major influence on young black photographers in the late 1980s and 1990s. Following Alex Hirst’s death in 1992 there was some controversy over attribution of his work, a discussion that still continues.
“My identity has been constructed from my own sense of otherness, whether cultural, racial or sexual. The three aspects are not separate within me. Photography is the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography therefore — Black, African, homosexual photography — which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms.”