For more than 30 years, Ajamu has unapologetically celebrated black queer bodies, the erotic sense and pleasure as activism. He has been at the forefront of genderqueer photography, challenging dominant ideas around masculinity, gender, sexuality and representation of black LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom.
Autograph commissioned Ajamu to create a new work drawing on the legacy of black queer photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Ajamu first modelled for Fani-Kayode in the 1980s in Brixton and this new autoportrait – the artist’s first in over a decade – pays homage to the lasting influence of Fani-Kayode’s works on the artist throughout his practice. For the commission, Ajamu chose to respond to Fani-Kayode’s closely-cropped self-portrait of the same title, Umbrella (1987), reflecting on the profoundly personal and political exploration of desire, diaspora, and spirituality.
During his tragically brief career, Fani-Kayode produced a complex body of photographic work, exploring themes of race, sexuality, spirituality, and the self. He was a prominent figure in the Black British art scene, and a founding signatory of Autograph.
Ajamu recalls: “In 1987 I was a student at Leeds Kitson College of Technology studying photography, printing, and design. In a copy of Gay Times, I came across a small selection of Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s works. Those few images then, and his work decades later, still speak to me. Rotimi was the first black gay photographer whose work I became aware of, as a young student. Through his work I was able to view gentle depictions of black male portraits and nudes within an artistic context outside of the framework of North American pornography and the white gay gaze."
"I recall visiting his flat and sheepishly sharing some of my own prints and contact sheets. I occasionally posed for him in works such as Fish Vendor (1988) and City Gent (1988), where I was always watching, looking and listening to him. He gave his time generously. Rotimi gifted us so many pictures for us to converse about that it was difficult to decide which one to speak to for this commission. I kept going back to his self-portrait Umbrella (1987), an image that is intriguing to me."
"In response I decided to create a new self-portrait – the first in almost a decade – and include an umbrella. The umbrella has several meanings: it serves as protection, it hides the face, it reflects light. I needed to locate a see-through lace umbrella, working with a beautiful item that could both protect and fail to protect, one that was soft, fragile and its materiality associated with fetishism.”
You can also view the commission in Ajamu's exhibition The Patron Saint of Darkrooms at Autograph, on until 2 September 2023.
Ajamu (1963, Huddersfield, UK) is a photographic artist, scholar, archive curator and radical sex activist best known for his imagery that challenges dominant ideas around black masculinity, gender, sexuality, and representation of black LGBTQ people in the United Kingdom.
He is the co-founder of rukus! Federation and the rukus! Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer + Archive and one of a few leading specialists on Black British LGBTQ+ history, heritage, and cultural memory in the UK. In 1997, Ajamu was the Autograph x Lightwork artist-in-residence in Syracuse, USA developing a series of self-portraits during his residency. He studied at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, The Netherlands, and is currently an PhD candidate at Royal College of Art, London. In 2022 Ajamu was canonised by The Trans Pennine Traveling Sisters as The Patron Saint of Darkrooms in his hometown Huddersfield and he received an honorary fellowship from the Royal photographic society.
Ajamu’s works have been shown in exhibitions in museums, galleries, and alternatives spaces across globally since the 1990s, his recent solo exhibitions include Archival Senoria at Cubitt Gallery, 2021. As well as included in several thematic group Very Private? at Charleston House, 2022; Fashioning Masculinities, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2022; Kiss My Genders, Hayward Gallery, 2019; Get Up, Stand Up Now, Somerset House, 2019; On our Backs: The Revolution Art of Queer Sex Work, Leslie Lohman Museum, 2019. His works are currently on show as part of the group exhibition A Hard Man is Good to Find! at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Ajamu’s works are held in collections including Tate, London; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow; Autograph, London; Neuberger Museum of Art, New York amongst others. His second monograph AJAMU: ARCHIVE was published in 2021.
Umbrella is inspired by Rotimi Fani-Kayode's photographs of the same name, taken in 1987 and in Autograph's collection of photography. You can read more about this photograph and it's legacy in our collection highlights.
Ajamu posed for, photographed and hand-printed his Autograph commission. The process of creating photography is important in Ajamu's creative practice, and he has said "In the darkroom, I feel an important metaphorical resonance with this medium, the tonality, the depth of the image is alive and such detail opens a space for the viewer to encounter an important aspect of the print, the 'history' of photography in relation to modern day black queer and trans identities." He documented the process of making, and developing, Umbrella, watch below.
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