For photographer Iké Udé, beauty is a political intervention. Udé understands that many of the images of Africa and its people that are exported throughout the world depict the continent in a debased fashion, so he carries the intention to bring forth in his images the beauty of Nigeria, his native country, and its people. His portraits hold up as a documentation that rewrites the narrative of African people.
“Ike Ude: Nollywood Portraits,” on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, provides grandiose testimony of African beauty. On display, are celebrated performers from the world’s second largest movie industry–Nollywood. The term, coined on a whim in 2002 by Norimitsu Onishi, chief of The New York Times’ southern Africa bureau, refers to the films coming out of Nigeria.
“Nollywood is an industry that built itself unapologetically on its own terms and it is now a global presence and here is a New York-based Nigerian artist who is bringing all the tools of glamor from across cultures, across centuries,” says the museum’s curator Karen Milbourne.
Like Hollywood, the actors of this movie industry are revered and adored. These are power players akin to the likes of the Hip Hop generation of the U.S. They are the P. Diddys and the Jay Zs of Africa, personalities who have come from all over the western region of Africa to contribute to a movement that is impacting the world. Their faces are plastered on DVD covers and promotional posters, so why not elevate them to high art? Some of the Nollywood celebrities featured are: Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, an actress, producer and director, who has starred in ten movies and multiple TV series; Richard Mofe Damijo, an actor, writer, producer and lawyer, who has starred in more than 70 films; and Genevieve Nnaji, an actress and producer who has starred in more than 100.
Nollywood is a $3 billion movie industry that began with the 1992 movie, Living in Bondage. Like many of the films produced following its release, Living in Bondage was shot using a home video camera with rough editing. The popularity of this low-budget movie caused a surge of similar films. The films tell stories of adultery, material concerns, sexual harassment and are at times allegorical, where moral wrongs are punished. In the beginning of the movement, they were primarily distributed and sold on DVD or shown in community spaces because of the high crime in areas where the cinemas existed.
The museum’s gallery space for the exhibition is loud with vibrant wall colors reflective of the portraits themselves. Udé’s portrait backdrops share in a conversation with the color field painting of the 1950s and ‘60s abstract painters. Of Udé’s 64 Nollywood portraits, 33 are on view. Many are at eye level, so the viewer experiences the intensity of the subjects and the feeling of making intimate contact. Others are double hung, salon style, which is consciously in dialogue with Udé’s studied knowledge of the history of art. The organizers, Milbourne and independent curator Selene Wendt, who were approached by Udé to exhibit the portraits, sought to create an experience so that with each turn in the gallery, the viewer encounters something new. The costumes adorning the sitters reveal small glimpses into the mystery of Udé’s practice.
Born in Lagos to a wealthy family, the artist began his career in the late 1980s with abstract painting and drawing. Though he attended Hunter College CUNY for Media Communications, photography has been his primary medium since the 1990s.
Udé’s Nollywood portraits are timely as the resurgence of Nigeria’s cinema houses encourage moviegoing and an upscale lifestyle that have turned the tides from home movie distribution to major motion picture production. As the quality of the films has increased, we see rising popularity and recognition surging for movies like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 Half of a Yellow Sun. More people who want to work in Nollywood are gaining formal education in filmmaking and acting. Societal norms are also changing; the acting profession was once discredited as akin to prostitution because of the onscreen lovemaking, but now Africans are allowing their children to pursue careers in the industry.
“We’re at a moment where there is a seismic shift in recognition of not having to defend African art or African vision in light of Eurocentric worldviews and here is a body of work that is so unapologetically cosmopolitan, savvy and just simply luscious,” Milbourne says.
The export of Nollywood movies throughout the world affords those outside of Nigeria to see the culture of a people who just three decades ago might not have been able to envision Nigeria, or even Africa, as cosmopolitan. The styling of the sitters in the portraits with their ball gowns, tuxedos and even traditional dress speaks to the powerful sophistication and elegance of Africa. The exportation of these images are already bringing change to the world’s view of Africa and its people. “The thing that’s extraordinary is how Udé is able to bring this sense of mystique, presence and persona beyond the façade of the actors’ celebrity,” says Milbourne.
Though the subjects in the portraits are well known to fans of Nollywood, the labels accompanying each portrait offer detailed biographies for museumgoers unfamiliar with the breadth of the sitters’ careers. But as many of the actors are constantly working, those bios might actually be out of date, by now.
African American artists, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald and Jordan Casteel have been creating portraits of everyday Black people in extraordinary ways. Wiley poses his subjects in a style reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Sherald captures Black actors as gray-scale figures foregrounded in colorful settings and wearing bright clothing. And Casteel depicts the quotidian with great painterly flair. These artists may be reacting to the lack of Black portraiture in permanent collections, but by creating portraits of the mundane and ordinary, they are indeed inserting the Black body into the art history canon.
Though portraiture is popular in Black art in the U.S. in this moment and hopefully gaining its much-deserved traction, Udé contributes an important new diasporic lens to the dialog.
His sitters are not everyday people. They are the Michael Phelps and Simone Biles of Nigeria–personalities to be recognized for their regality. And his portraits of such Nigerian luminaries as Joke Silva, who received Best Actress in a Leading Role at the second Africa Movie Academy Awards for Women’s Cot; Alexx Ekubo, who received Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Best of Nollywood Awards for The Bling Lagosians; and Eniyinna Nwigwe, who was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Africa Movie Awards simultaneously for both Badamasi and Dear Affy, exhibit these actors’ commanding presence.
They have aided in building an industry that is changing the world. With their wealth, Nollywood players are growing important businesses in beauty and fashion that in turn are employing other Africans.
“Iké Udé: Nollywood Portraits” defies the stereotypes that label Africa as destitute and unsophisticated. Here is documentary proof that Africa and its people are players in the global world market. They have created something on their own terms and to their liking. Iké Udé, an insider of U.S. fashion and art, lends his aptitude to this exhibition as gratitude to the nation that birthed him.
The transnational phenomenon of Nollywood is on display for the world and primed to become a mainstay. Iké Udé is telling a narrative of Africa that has not yet been told. It is a narrative that fashions Africa and its people with a sense of flair and sophistication.