The Radical Beauty of Iké Udé‘s Portraits
Back in the day, when Andy Warhol was the talk of the town, on the cusp of making a household name for himself by dissolving boundaries and challenging convention, he experimented in ways that had an unprecedented impact on the prevalence of portraiture. Warhol’s portraits of celebrities and socialites were popping up everywhere from Park Avenue to Hollywood as he rapidly became as famous as the subjects he depicted. With photography as the point of departure, Warhol extended beyond the limits of the medium to create photographic silkscreen prints based on washed out Polaroid images. Similarly, Iké Udé extends beyond traditional photography by taking advantage of digital technology to create his own signature style that is as painterly as it is poetic. He doesn’t simply take photographs; he makes portraits through a time-consuming process that involves an inordinate amount of staging, preening, styling, and attention to every imaginable detail. The results are seen in perfectly balanced compositions that equate to pure visual poetry.
Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits are uniquely situated between the timeless and the contemporary, while the subjects are perfectly posed between the worlds of art, fashion, and cinema. Beauty unfolds in sumptuous details that are reminiscent of both classical portraiture and high fashion photography. Radical beauty is conveyed in a contemporary African narrative that is as much about substance and empowerment as it is about style, elegance, and aesthetics.
The Nollywood Portraits bring to mind the brilliant words of bell hooks: “Photography has been, and is central to that aspect of decolonization that calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds. Using images, we connect ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enables us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye.” This is part of what makes the Nollywood Portraits so vital and interesting – they convey radical identities. They make a wonderful, bold statement about African identity at a time in American history when the vestiges of colonialism and racism, mixed with ignorance and violence, continue to threaten Black lives on a daily basis. These portraits convey radical beauty by reclaiming, reconstructing, and redefining notions of African identity.
At this moment in time Nollywood and the individuals featured in these portraits are in a state of transformation, prepared to break free from what has been a mostly quantitative ranking (number two worldwide behind Bollywood), ready to focus more on the qualitative aspects that are necessary to change the outcome of comparisons between Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood. For quite some time Nollywood has had a tremendous cultural impact throughout the African continent and the African diaspora. Nollywood is a vital part of a transnational, transcontinental conversation that extends to South Africa, east to Kenya, and as far west as Jamaica and the United States. The fact that Nollywood also has its own capital in the United States (Houston) tells the story of a film industry with a growing global impact.
Philosophical reflections on the role of beauty and aesthetics in art have provided an ongoing source of discussion since antiquity. Great philosophers, poets, and writers from Plato and Kant to Baudelaire and Stendhal have been fascinated with defining the most paradoxical aspect of beauty: its fleeting, indefinable quality. Arthur C. Danto once said that art is beautiful because its beauty is embedded in the meaning of the work. Whether or not we accept this as a universal truth, his statement is interesting if we extend it to say that beauty is embedded in the radicalism of the work. In this case, beauty is more than what meets the eye. I discussed this at length in my essay The Cracked Mirror of Beauty, written in relation to South African contemporary art:
At the juncture where issues of beauty are set free from a strictly visual definition, at the moment when beauty is considered within the context of what is felt, what is inferred and what is implied, is precisely when beauty becomes a valuable expressive device for contemporary artists. Even when beauty plays a traditionally aesthetic role, if it is also used for the further purpose of raising fundamental questions surrounding the implications of beauty in the first place, it turns out that beauty is so much more than what meets the eye. Especially when beauty is not the only goal, when it is used as part of a questioning of its own underpinnings and ramifications, that is when beauty outdoes itself in its potential to move, to give pleasure, to raise questions, to make us do a double take that involves an ultimate reconsideration of what we may have thought was true, universal, shared, right, or even wrong about beauty.
Iké Udé is keenly aware of the inherent power of beauty to capture our attention and it’s hard not to be swept away by the glamour and elegance of these breathtakingly beautiful portraits. Nonetheless, it’s important to delve beneath the surface of these impeccably composed compositions, to discover what lies beyond the beauty of the subjects and the exquisite balance between composition, form, and color. I am interested in the factors that make these portraits not simply beautiful, but radically beautiful, also contribute to making the Nollywood Portraits series Iké Udé’s most ambitious and culturally significant body of work to date.
During a career that has already spanned decades, Iké Udé has consistently challenged classic distinctions between art and fashion and been at the forefront of both. Udé is perhaps most widely recognized for his performative, often autobiographical approach to photography that is typically outrageous, ironic, playful, and inquisitive. His 1994 Cover Girl series is a perfect example of his early artistic practice, which involved a serious critical discourse disguised by the fun and flair of fashion. Iké Udé ripped fashion, art, and culture apart at the seams and offered us refreshingly original, and sometimes provocative, creations that questioned all kinds of cultural and social misconceptions. With the Cover Girl series, he found the perfect platform to play the multiple roles of artist, dandy, provocateur, model, photographer, and social critic decades before topics of gender and cultural identity became integral to mainstream cultural discourse. Each cover in the Cover Girl series pays tribute to radical beauty and is perfectly composed to capture attention and tease the viewer with just the right amount of wit and humor.
With the launch of his art, culture, and fashion magazine aRude in 1995, Iké Udé set the standard for what would be a flourish of similar magazines worldwide in the years to follow. The title pays homage to the quintessentially stylish Jamaican rude boys of the fifties and sixties. To this day, there are few magazines that even begin to compare in terms of bridging the visual and intellectual gap between content and style. Iké Udé enforced his position in the New York art world with his solo exhibition Beyond Decorum, which featured the most comprehensive presentation of his photographs to date. With his solo exhibition Paris Hilton: Fantasy and Simulacrum, in 2009, he reminded the world that when it comes to revealing and questioning the underpinnings of popular culture, nobody does it better than Iké Udé. At a time when Paris Hilton had more media presence than Beyoncé and the Kardashians combined, and long before selfies and Instagram took over our smart phones, Iké Udé was questioning and commenting on celebrity culture in ways that surely would have fascinated Walter Benjamin. With Style and Sympathies, his solo exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery in 2013, he was on the verge of a stylistic breakthrough that would ultimately influence the Nollywood Portraits series.
Iké Udé captures the essence of each of his subjects with the vision of a master painter. Stylistic elements reminiscent of David, Ingres, and John Singer Sargent are all there, to name only a few, in addition to Raphael in the case of The School of Nollywood mural. In fact,his photographs are often reminiscent of paintings, and his respect and understanding for the great painters of art history really make his portraits sparkle. Through the visual language of painting, he created his own signature style of photography. He paints with color and light to create portraits that are tweaked to perfection through a keen attention to detail and use of unusually vivid, vibrant colors. As such, Iké Udé works outside of time, in a place that is inspired by the past, driven by the present, and headed towards the future.
The lavish details and meticulously composed compositions bring to mind the iconic style of Jacques-Louis David. The iconic painting Madame Recamier is a perfect example of David’s attention to decorative elements, punctuated by a gorgeous, centrally placed chaise longue. Madame Recamier’s dramatic, contrapposto pose, the luminosity of her skin, and the delicate drapery of her dress are precisely the kind of details that make the subjects in Iké Udé’s portraits shine so brightly. The chaise longue alone immediately brings to mind the carefully measured placement of furniture throughout the Nollywood Portraits, and in the portraits of Genevieve Nnaji, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Daniella Chioma Okeke, and Linda Ihuoma Ejiofor in particular, the effect is heightened by their dramatic, stylized poses. David’s student Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres is another master painter who has clearly been a source of inspiration for Udé. His painstaking attention to pattern, decoration, and texture, the beautifully posed subjects, and the rich details that speak the unequivocal language of wealth and success all echo Ingres’ neoclassical portraits. Similar to how the rich brocades, velvets, and silks contribute to the visual impact of Ingres’ portraits, Iké Udé combines impeccably styled attire, carefully curated pieces of furniture, and the inclusion of unusual details ranging from genie bottles to Persian-inspired carpets to create portraits that transcend time and place.
Equally fluent in the languages of high art and haute couture, Iké Udé travels between cultures with the grace and ease of the most sophisticated cosmopolitan. His photographs speak the rich visual language of classical portraiture, while the context extends the conversation to a timely discussion about the social and cultural impact of Nollywood worldwide. These portraits convey the style and elegance of the individuals who have played an active role in making New Nigerian Cinema what it is today: a globally recognized movie industry that has captured the hearts of fans all over the African continent and throughout the African diaspora. While each of the portraits convey some of the magic that makes Nollywood sparkle, the exhibition as a whole emphasizes the significance of Nollywood as a cultural phenomenon that has succeeded in transcending cultures and continents, with an overall impact that can only be compared to Bollywood or Hollywood. As such, the Nollywood Portraits series conveys radical beauty.
 bell hooks, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995) p. 64
 Cited from a lecture given by Arthur C. Danto in Oslo in October, 2005 entitled Whatever Happened to Aesthetics?
 Selene Wendt, Beauty and Pleasure in South African Contemporary Art (Oslo: The Stenersen Museum, 2009) Cited from the essay The Cracked Mirror of Beauty. p. 19