Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Abiku (Born to Die)

1988, printed c.1988

Sorry, no image available

Rotimi Fani-Kayode 1955–1989
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper with oil tint
Image: 280 × 280 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee and Tate Members 2020


This is one of a group of four black and white photographs in Tate’s collection from the larger series Abiku (Born to Die) 1988 (Tate P82469P82472). In this series Fani Kayode has captured a black male model in different nude poses, his face deliberately turned away from the camera or obscured. In one, the model appears to the bottom left of the frame with only his upper chest visible and his head tilted backwards. His neck appears to be positioned between a pair of large, open scissors, yet their translucency makes it clear that this print is a double exposure: the two images were shot separately and the negatives were then exposed onto the same sheet of paper.

In three other images from this series, Fani-Kayode has posed the model with a length of plastic piping. In one of the photographs, the model is seated with his knees bent and head bowed, and the pipe coiled around his entire body. In another, the pipe – the image of which has been colour-tinted by hand – is coiled around the model’s stretched neck resembling a noose. Double exposure throws a mottled pattern – akin to sunlight on water, perhaps, or crumpled fabric – over these images. In the third image the model is shown standing, from behind, the pipe wrapped around his neck and shoulders. This print is also flecked with white marks, a result of Fani Kayode brushing chemicals onto its surface.

Also in Tate’s collection is a fifth related photograph, Untitled 1988 (Tate P82473), which features on the left of the frame a close-up of the model’s face, his eyes nearly closed. Fani-Kayode has tinted the surface of this particular print with oil tint so that the skin appears green and the lips unnaturally pink. To the right of this, again made with double exposure, is a male figure wearing a loincloth and standing in a contorted pose: knees bent, torso twisted, his right elbow pointed upwards. It is not thought that this work is part of the Abiku (Born to Die) series, despite the visual similarities (email correspondence from Renée Mussai, curator and Head of Archive and Research at Autograph ABP, to Tate curators Emma Lewis and Kerryn Greenberg, June 2018). All five of the photographs in Tate’s collection are vintage prints made by the artist, most likely printed in a makeshift studio in Fani-Kayode’s flat in Brixton, south London, where he made most of his work.

The Yoruba word ‘Abiku’ means ‘destined for death’ and refers to a pre-pubescent child who dies repeatedly, its spirit reborn in different bodies. The mother may mark the chest, back or face of a young child perceived to be an Abiku. Intending to return to the spirit world, rather than remain with their terrestrial family, the Abiku is believed to cause its mother grief and pain. Children labelled as surviving Abiku are often seen to possess unusual characteristics or demonstrate behaviours that lead to them being by turns indulged or ostracised by their communities. (For a description of the concept see, for instance, John Mobolade, ‘The Concept of Abiku’, African Arts, vol. 7, no. 1, 1973). Fani-Kayode was exploring the meaning of ‘Abiku’ in relation to the Yoruba meaning of his own name: ‘stay with me’. (Email correspondence from Renée Mussai, curator and Head of Archive and Research at Autograph ABP, to Tate curators Emma Lewis and Kerryn Greenberg, June 2018.)

Fani-Kayode made this body of work shortly before his sudden death in 1989. The title Abiku (Born to Die) could relate to, among other things, an awareness of the fragility of life – something that he would have inevitably been conscious of as a gay man living in London in the 1980s as the AIDS pandemic escalated. This choice of title could also refer to his experience as a self-described outsider ‘on matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for’ (quoted in Fani-Kayode 1988, n.p).

The highly constructed portraits that Fani-Kayode made during his seven-year career – often in collaboration with his partner Alex Hirst – feature symbolism and iconography that refer to his cultural history and experiences, particularly in relation to his identity as a homosexual black man. Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph ABP who represent the artist’s estate, has described how these references were often lost on curators who attempted to understand his work through comparison to Western artists and photographers, in particular the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). Acutely aware of this, and of his exclusion from the canon in which he was well-educated, the artist’s response was to ‘invert, subvert and appropriate’ these histories (Fani-Kayode 1988, n.p). He wrote:

Both aesthetically and ethically, I seek to translate my rage and my desire into new images which will undermine conventional perceptions and which may reveal hidden worlds … 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: that they can desire each other.
(Fani-Kayode 1988, n.p.)

Further reading
Mark Sealy, ‘A Note from the Outside: On Rotimi Fani-Kayode’, in Rotimi Fani-Kayode: Communion, London 1995.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode, ‘Traces of Ecstacy’, Ten.8 Photo, no.28: Rage and Desire, 1988,, accessed 25 June 2018.
John Mobolade, ‘The Concept of Abiku’, African Arts, vol.7, no.1, 1973, pp.62–4.

Emma Lewis
June 2018

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like