Iké Udé Captures Nollywood’s Living Legends With His Timeless Portraiture
Nigerian artist Iké Udé on his return to Lagos after 30 years to work on an extensive project capturing the movers and shakers of Nollywood.
We’re at Iké Udé’s Chelsea studio—magazines, trinkets and opulent wigs surround him. He sits crossed legged on his small couch wearing a khaki green-themed ensemble with grey canvas Chucks. By the door are rows of ornate footwear and a backdrop set up to be camera ready for studio portraits. All he needs is a subject and he’d be good to go.
After offering me a glass of water with option of drinking it in a tall or a short glass, we delve in and talk about his newest project—Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty. The photographs span more than 60 Nollywood personalities, a task he pursued in October 2014 after being away from Lagos, Nigeria for 30 years.
“Nollywood made [me] return to Nigeria after such a long absence,” Udé says.
The cunning cinema industry that comes second behind Bollywood in size with close to 2,000 titles released and over $600 million revenue gained annually would pull anyone in on the ground to see and experience it in the flesh. The impact Nollywood has on the world drove Udé to celebrate the movers and shakers in the industry in the classic style he’s known for. His grand group shot he created is inspired by Raphael’s 1509 painting, The School of Athens.
The School of Nollywood. Iké Udé, 2014-2016.
“Nollywood is that important,” Udé exclaims. “It is this huge, immeasurable cultural force—and phenomenal—originating from Africa and authored by and for Africans and inevitably for the world. Nollywood is perhaps the best thing out of Africa since the Pyramids, the Pharaohs, the Queens and Obelisks.”
Udé also notes during his time shooting his subjects, including Genevieve Nnaji, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Stephanie Okereke, Kunle Afolayan and more, how impressed and inspired he was by their huge ambitions and plans for the future.
“In a sense, Nollywood is just getting started—the best is yet to come,” he says.
Below, Udé and I discuss how he got started in photography, his process of taking portraits and what draws him to color.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Antoinette Isama for Okayafrica: I have read that growing up you did a lot of family portraits—and that sparked your interest in photography?
Iké Udé: My family had a photographer that came in once a month or so to do family portraiture for the family album, because we wanted to build a photo album for the family. That was also a very good excuse to change clothes and have new clothes made for you—so we did that. That got me very familiar with photography, especially being in front of the camera. I think that was a very good initiation to photography as a subject. Also, I was in boarding school when Polaroid was very new in the market, it was very popular, so I began taking photos of my friends in boarding school, and also selfies as well. It wasn't called a ‘selfie’ at the time, but I did take a lot of selfies with a Polaroid camera.
Who would you say your audience is?
What are you trying to communicate to them through your work?
I don't try to communicate.
What do you try to do?
It's a proposed engagement, to engage, yeah? At most, but for me, but for like my part, I have pleasure in making art. I help people to share in the pleasure of what I do, but they're not obliged at all.
Would you say your work is for yourself first?
Yeah, to please myself, yes. And hopefully for the smart people who engenders interest to share the pleasure. In a sense, my portraits of other people is by way of engaging them to share in the beauty and the pleasure that I like. Just the number of Nollywood people, 64 of them, that are pretty rare for the portraits, I think it's a testimony to find the people that I want to engage in the portrait process and the result.
Can you walk me through what that is when you want to set up a portrait of somebody?
I think when I do a portraiture I like to have the various parts of the body be performative, and by that I mean how to arrange the limbs, the torso, the finger, the posture, even a tilt of head, here and there, and it's kind of a wonderful harmony.
For me, a portraiture is like the arrangement of the body basically, and often times clothes, I don't, I rarely do nudes. I like to have everything very performative, if you're wearing some clothes, I want the clothes to bring something to the table, and I want the thing that it brings onto the table, and that's what I mean by that. There's no kind of you just sit there and you photograph a face and you call it a day, I am not interested in that. Also the colors, and I love colors very much, it's pleasurable in my work.
Genevieve Nnaji. Iké Udé, 2014-2016.
I've noticed that, it's very bright and vibrant. What draws you to those kinds of hues?
For example in music, they talk about tonality; they talk about color in music; even though it's an abstract kind of term, because what is color in Mozart or Chopin, right? But they talk about tonality and color—and music for me is like it's one of the supreme arts in a way. In music, there's a basic harmony and rhymes—it's not achieved visually. Color is one of the most important—it is the supreme language of visual arts, and very, very few know how to use color. It's much easier to achieve harmony of composition with black and white photography than with color, it's very tricky.
Are there some challenges that you come across in that regard?
How to balance color so that it's not lopsided, so that it's there. There is a way to make colors dialogue with each other, especially in counterbalance or counterpoints, right? To create a mood and to engender feelings and emotions, to stir the senses, you know? Color is very magical and it's timeless. Yellow has been here forever, blue has been here forever, green has been here, so the colors they live in a time—it makes things timeless. You cannot say, "Oh, yellow was from the 70s," you can't say that. Color has no boundary or geography, the green has been there since we knew how to say, "Green." It makes my work very timeless. I don't like photographs that are very specific in geography or time. I like timelessness.
The attempt to make sense of where we are, who we are is not precise. I think it's good to think in a timeless fashion because time, our every epoch comes and goes, and as time marches mercilessly, which it does, if you do something that is not specific to any age it will always be very fresh all the time. Water is timeless—you cannot say, "Oh, this water is from 1970s," right? You go to a river, like Hudson River, it's still flowing, the Nile River is still flowing. You cannot put it in a bottle of water.
An exhibition of 'Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty' kicks off Thursday, Oct. 20, at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Udé’s work will be published in a hardcover book, featuring texts by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sarah Nuttall, Helen Trompeterler, Chigozie Obioma, Toni Kan, Osahon Akpata, Binyavanga Wainaina and Olu Oguibe.