The Global Art Project

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 fashion, art, and cinema. These portraits involve the kind of excessive pageantry one might associate with ornate Renaissance painting. Beauty is revealed 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.

As I reflect over the Nollywood Portraits series I can’t help but hear bell hooks’ voice in my mind, reminding me that “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 interesting to me – they convey radical identities. Radical because these are portraits of contemporary Nigerians, photographed by a Nigerian-born photographer, in a fully empowering manner. The Nollywood Portraits 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. So, while these portraits convey radical beauty, even more urgently, they reclaim, reconstruct, and redefine notions of African identity.

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Stuart Hall wrote prolifically about the fluid, ever-changing nature of cultural identity, describing it as something that is in a constant state of transition rather than something that is rigid and fixed. In his seminal work Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Stuart Hall writes,  “Cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending time, place, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation.”   At this moment in time Nollywood and the Nollywood 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 down to South Africa, east to Kenya, and as far west as Jamaica. The fact that Nollywood also has its own capital in the United States (Houston) tells the story of a film industry with a global impact that is steadily on the rise. The timing couldn’t have been better for Iké Udé to capture the beauty of Nollywood.

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 highly aware of the inherent power of beauty to capture our attention. There is no denying that these portraits are breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s hard not to be star struck and dazzled by the glamour and elegance of these Nollywood stars. However, I would like 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, the factors that make us do a double take, the factors that make 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 proven himself to be 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 an unusual combination of critical discourse disguised by the fun and flair of fashion. In a world where plaids mix with floral prints, there are no gender rules, and the past melds with the present, 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 dandy, provocateur, model, photographer, artist, and social critic decades before topics of gender and cultural identity were brought into the average living room. Each cover is a tribute to radical beauty, perfectly composed to grab our attention and tease us with just the right amount of wit and humor. In case you somehow don’t detect the clever irony throughout, one of the headlines quips: “What is Art? Experts Disagree”. The answer is right there. When it comes to Iké Udé, art is almost always about radical beauty. 

With the launch of his legendary 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. I would say that aRUDE was, and still is, equally as relevant as Andy Warhol’s Interview.  Subsequently, Iké Udé continued to secure 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, he once again 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, Gigi Hadid, and the Kardashians combined, and well 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. Finally, 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.

Iké Udé captures the essence of each of his subjects with the skill 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.  I find it interesting that Iké Udé’s photographs always remind me of painters, and here is the key that unlocks the compositional magic of his work. Clearly, he has the proper amount of respect and understanding for art history, which makes his portraits really sparkle. As such, he has truly succeeded in creating his own signature style. 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. The result is a refreshing counterpoint to the instant imagery typical of our digital age. Iké Udé works outside of time, in a place that is inspired by the past, driven by the present, and headed towards the future.

As I linger over the sumptuous details of the Nollywood Portraits I find myself transported back in time to the 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 of which is heightened by their dramatic, stylized poses. However, if I were to choose only one master painter whose portraits I regard to be as regal as Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits, I would probably choose David’s student Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres. Iké Udé’s painstaking attention to pattern, decoration, and texture, his 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, the inclusion of unusual details ranging from genie bottles to Persian-inspired carpets as magical as One Thousand and One Nights, to create visual poetry through portraiture. 

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 conveys what 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 truly does convey a radical beauty.