01 February 2022

Rotimi Fani Kayode, Ten.8 and Critical Decade


I first came into contact with Rotimi Fani Kayode’s work when David A Bailey brought his essay ‘On three counts I am an outsider’ and a selection of his photographs to a Ten.8 editorial meeting in the autumn of 1987. The essay and photographs had been rejected by a black arts magazine in London as “too controversial”. Ten.8 was more open to the work: the quality and power of the images and the words that accompanied them were immediately apparent to everyone present at the editorial meeting when David presented them.

The essay and images were subsequently published in Ten.8 No.28 Rage & Desire under the title Traces of Ecstasy in December 1987.

In 1988 and again in 1990 I was a guest at Houston Fotofest and was invited to become a member of the festival’s International Advisory Board. The role was essentially to act as a kind of talent scout for the festival directors, Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin. As Ten.8 had been instrumental in publishing the work of several black British photographers, including of course Fani-Kayode, I suggested that the 1992 Fotofest should include a selected exhibition of some of this work.

Fred and Wendy visited the UK in 1991 to research this project and David A Bailey and myself facilitated their access to a number of photographers.

Eventually they selected work by Ingrid Pollard, Claudette Holmes, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and David A Bailey to be shown in the main exhibition venue at the George R Brown Convention Centre in Houston from March 7 to-April 5, 1992 under the title Inside Out: Black British Photographers.

Rotimi had sadly died in December 1989 and he had entrusted his photographic work to his partner Alex Hirst before he passed. Alex prepared the exhibition prints for Houston and travelled to the festival as a guest of the organisers. He was very ill at the time he travelled to Houston but wanted to be present for the exhibition as he and Rotimi had worked very closely together on the concepts behind Rotimi’s photography.

In addition to the Convention Centre show, there were more than 70 other exhibitions held at galleries, museums and art spaces in the Houston area. On my previous visit to Houston, I had struck up a warm friendship with Michele Barnes, an artist and curator, who had recently opened the Barnes Blackman Gallery, one of the few in Houston showing work by black artists. Through Fred and Wendy I made contact again with Michele and she agreed to host a show based on the forthcoming Ten.8 publication Critical Decade at her gallery during Fotofest. This show, which included work by Ingrid Pollard, Dave Lewis, Roshini Kempadoo, Sunil Gupta, Zak Ové, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Gilbert John, Suzanne Roden, Maxine Walker, Claudette Holmes, Zarina Bhimji, Val Brown and Vincent Stokes was curated by me and Darryl Georgiou from work which had been submitted for inclusion in Ten.8. With the permission of the artists, Georgiou painstakingly made photographic copies of the originals and Ten.8 arranged for these to be printed to exhibition standard and then shipped to Houston.

Many of the artists featured in these two exhibitions – including David A Bailey, Roshini Kempadoo, Claudette Holmes and Val Brown – travelled to Houston to be at the openings. For almost all of the artists, this was their first serious exposure in the United States and provided a major boost to their profile and standing.

Shortly after returning from Houston, I completed – along with David A Bailey, Andy Cameron and Professor Stuart Hall – the final editing of the Ten.8 publication Critical Decade (Ten.8 Vol2, No3 Spring 1992). This contained a reprint of the article by Rotimi which had appeared in Rage & Desire, alongside a new selection of his images which had been provided by Alex Hirst.

In July 1992 I attended the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival with Mark Sealy, who had recently taken over as the director of Autograph. We both had copies of the recently published Critical Decade which we were using to promote the idea of an exhibition of Black British photography. I had hopes that Christian Cajoulle, the founder of Agence VU and a major figure in the photography world who had agreed to become a Patron of Ten.8 magazine the previous year, would help us to find a sponsor for an event the following year. However, the breakthrough came through a chance encounter with a representative from Kodak, who were at that time major sponsors of the festival. Mark Sealy was sitting at a table in the Place du Forum with a copy of the magazine in front of him. The man from Kodak, who was walking by, was attracted by the unusual cover image and stopped to take a look. He was fascinated and massively impressed with Critical Decade and through him we were introduced to Loius Mesplé, the festival director, and offered the opportunity to make a production for the 1993 Spectacles, four nights of tape slide presentations projected onto a giant screen in the ancient amphitheatre in Arles. This was generally recognised to be one of the most sought-after commissions at the Rencontres.

Later that year, in the autumn and early winter of 1992, Mark Sealy and I began to research additional material for the audio-visual show. This involved visiting as many black practitioners as possible and persuading them to give us work to be included in the show. Although Ten.8 had researched a great deal of material for Critical Decade, we wanted to be sure that we had not missed anything and too see new work. In many cases, the artists did not have studio space and work was stored randomly in their flats, under beds and in boxes. I collected much of the work and drove with it up to Birmingham where we examined it in more detail in the Ten.8 editorial offices.

More than 40 rolls of Kodak Ektachrome duplicating film were used to document and duplicate the work shown in Houston and Arles. It was painstaking work using techniques first developed by me for the Handprint publishing project run by my wife Merrise Crooks which were further developed for the Ten.8 exhibition touring service run by the late Richard Gagola, and then refined by Darryl Georgiou. While this work was going on, I began to work on a script and to research music, which included persuading David Hinds from Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse to remix a version of Handsworth Revolution for the soundtrack.

As part of the material research and collection process, Sealy and I visited Alex Hirst in early November 1992. Alex was now seriously ill and knew he was dying from HIV-Aids. He was, however, very excited at the prospect of Rotimi’s work being shown in Arles. He asked Mark if Autograph would take care of all of Rotimi’s work: he handed over all of Rotimi’s negatives and transparencies with one proviso – that Mark and Autograph would arrange to have Rotimi’s work published in a significant, hard cover book and that Autograph would provide a secure archive for the work. Mark gave this promise and we all shook hands. I drove all the material to Birmingham where we selected the work that was to be included in the Arles projection, which had now been called Rencontres au Noir. Rotimi’s work was a major element in the project.

Rencontres au Noir was shown in the Theatre Antique in Arles in July 1993. Many of the artists whose work was included were present including Joy Gregory, David A Bailey, Chila Burman, Roshini Kempadoo, Dave Lewis and also David Hinds from Steel Pulse.

Subsequently all the work given to us by Alex was returned to Autograph where it was archived and where it remains to this day. Alex Hirst died in January 1993.

The promise to Alex was fulfilled when the book Rotimi Fani-Kayode & Alex Hirst: Photographs was published in March 1997 (Autograph and Revue Noir, edited by Mark Sealy and Jean Loup Pivin, with essays by Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Jean Loup Pivin, Alex Hirst, Derek Bishton, Kobena Mercer and Simon Njami, ISBN 2-909571-17-3). Autograph has continued to make Rotimi’s work visible in the public realm through exhibitions, talks and educational programmes.

I also want to indicate the enormous debt Autograph owes to Ten.8. At the time when Mark Sealy took over as the Manager of Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers, in 1992, the organisation was running a deficit. It was operating from one room in the Bon Marché building in Brixton and in danger of collapse. The editorial focus of Ten.8 on the upsurge of Black photography in the 1980s and 90s provided Autograph with a launch pad that fortunately Mark Sealy was able to exploit in the most dynamic and creative way.


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