Iké Udé

Iké Udé: The radical beauty of Africa, in portraits

Throughout his colorful career and bodies of work, Iké Udé has found creative ways to reject the negative portrayal of Africans rampant in Western media. In this tour of his work, he shares evocative portraits that blend clothing, props and poses from many cultures at once into sharp takes on the varied, complex beauty of Africa.

In 1996, I was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum to execute a large body of work called "Uses of Evidence." It was a cube -- a very well large cube, at that. Each side had a window in order for the spectators to view the interior of the structure. The exterior of the structure was a collage of Africa and Africans as portrayed in the Western media and literature. A look through the windows revealed a sharp contrast: within the cubes are tranquil, civilized, domestic images of African family members, friends and Nigerian professionals, ranging from writers, poets, fashion designers, etc. The thing is, both the exterior and the interior images are quite true. But the images captured by Western media overwhelmingly depict Africans as basically primitive at best, or barely distinguishable from the African animals. Not much has changed, I'm afraid, since 1996, when I executed this work.

I began my professional photography practice in 1994, but my passion and enthusiasm for photography goes back to childhood, when my parents arranged for us to be photographed by a professional photographer on almost a monthly basis. It was also an opportunity for my siblings to dress up in our latest gear, made by our tailor. Later, when I was in boarding school, my friends and I bought Polaroid cameras, and then I began to experiment with self-portraiture, or what I would call "proto-selfie auto-portraits."


"Cover Girl 1994" was my first major work that was critically well received in the US and Europe and quite instantly became a part of the school anthologies at universities and colleges. With the "Cover Girl" series, I wanted to reimagine the magazine cover with imagery totally unexpected, yet profoundly reasonable. The "Cover Girl" series proposed a different way the African can be represented in a more complex manner.

Like "Cover Girl," the "Sartorial Anarchy" series is made up of self-portraits. It is an ongoing body of work, started in 2010. In each image, I married disparate costumes from widely diverse traditions, countries and time frames. And in mixing eras, cultures, I was able to bring harmony, as it were, to their similarly irreconcilable differences. These differences became a source of inspired artistic celebration.

For example, in "Sartorial Anarchy #4," I mixed a boater hat, inspired by the traditional Eton-Oxford College Boat Race, with a green Afghan traditional coat and an American Boy Scout shirt -- a culture clash that works. In "Sartorial Anarchy #5," I wore a macaroni wig, inspired by eighteenth-century macaroni headgear from England. This was paired with a British Norfolk jacket, Yoruba Nigerian trousers, and, improbably, a South African Zulu fighting stick. All harmoniously coexist on one body. And with "Sartorial Anarchy," I began to invest more into the organization of my pictures. I also began to investigate the vast possibilities of color: its emotional values, psychological impulse, poetic allure and a boundless capacity beyond the realm of meaning and logic.

Now, enter Nollywood. In October of 2014, I returned to Lagos, Nigeria, after over three decades away and took photographs of 64 Nollywood personalities. I captured a cross section of the industry, as well as the next generation of rising stars. Nollywood is the first time that you have a school of African filmmakers truly, truly, profoundly in charge of telling African stories. In their varied movies -- from romantic movies, horror films, gangster movies to action movies -- one sees Nigerians portrayed with many layers of complexities. All the Nigerian, or "Naija," archetypes, if you allow, are there -- from the divvers, the "Shakara," the coquette, the gangsters, the rich, the corrupt politicians, the whore, the pimp -- all in their swagger. And of course, you have the lowlifes and the losers, too, all vividly portrayed. Nollywood is Africa's mirror par excellence.

Typically, I direct all of my portraits, from the way my subject conducts his or her head, the way the neck is tilted, the expression of the fingers, the gestures of the hands, to the gaze and overall bearing and countenance. Let me describe some of the photographs for you.

Genevieve Nnaji. She is the reigning queen of Nollywood. Here, I was quoting from the grand, Pharaonic African cultures of the Nile Valley civilizations; namely, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, so as to imbue her with a stately, ironic, calm grandeur.

Taiwo Ajai-Lycett is the grande dame of Nollywood. Every aspect of her being commands attention. So I posed her with her back to the audience. Her face turned to meet us with a redoubtable gaze. She doesn't need to seek our approval. She's all that.

Sadiq Daba. There was an unspoken authoritarian and imperial bearing that Sadiq Daba exudes upon meeting him. In this portrait, he simply sat and allowed his massive, massive Nigerian caftan to signal his status. Quite an accomplishment.

Belinda Effah. Belinda Effah's portrait allowed me to indulge my passion for color, dressed in a long, fitted blue dress that emphasizes her curves, seated on an upholstered green velvet bench. I gamely employed the multicolored carpet and a vibrant color, in order to evoke the splendor of the multicolored painted bunting bird. Everything was designed to harmonize the figure of Belinda within the frame.

Monalisa Chinda is, shall we say, the epitome of the luxe existence and lifestyle. Her picture, or portrait, pretty much speaks for itself.

Alexx Ekubo is a sharp study in simplified elegance and dignity and a harmony in blue and white, as well.

Enyinna Nwigwe is a Nollywood matinee idol. There is whiff of the rake about him, and that gives him an enchanting edge. That's what I felt when I designed and organized the portrait.

Now, Nollywood is a new phase of Africa. It is modern, post-modern, meta-modern, bold sexy, shrewd and with a contagious attitude worth catching. As the finale of the project, I assembled the Nollywood stars into a group grand portrait of 64 subjects, called "The School of Nollywood," which was inspired by Rafael's "School of Athens," that was done circa 1509. It is at the Vatican. This grand group portrait is the exact same size as Rafael's "School of Athens." It measures roughly 27 feet in width by six and a half feet in height.

Nollywood also exemplifies a type of modernity never before seen in Africa. Think of it: there has never been anything so ubiquitous with such iconic optics to come out of Africa since the Nile Valley civilizations of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia. Outside of Nollywood, the image of Africa remains frozen in the old "National Geographic" mode and safari perspective. But as Africans continue to step and see themselves portrayed by Nollywood in their varied and fantastic complexities, they will, in turn, propagate and perpetuate the positive image of themselves. This is what Hollywood did and continues to do for the West.

As shocking as this may be, it is almost a taboo in the art world to show Africans in a modern framework -- that is to say, as polished, dry-cleaned, manicured, pedicured and coiffed.


Part of my job is to keep beautifying Africa for the world, one portrait at a time.

Thank you.