I first encountered Iké Udé’s startlingly beautiful self-portraits two years ago in an exhibition called Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Looking at what would become just the first four photographs of an ongoing series that now includes over thirty images, I was struck by the aesthetic complexity of these images, and their astonishingly diverse array of references to art, fashion, and history. Staring out at the viewer in an Ottoman-inspired onion hat made from West African fabric and a beautiful blue cape in Sartorial Anarchy #2 (2010), Udé took on the appearance of the Ottoman scribe in a Giovanni Bellini gouache I had seen at the Gardner Museum. In Sartorial Anarchy #4 (2010), with his casual posture and his face in profile, Udé takes on the enigmatic look of Sargent’s Madame X, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, his home for the last 32 years.
In his 2010 statement on Sartorial Anarchy, Udé writes, “It is challenging, liberating and imaginatively rewarding to ‘mess’ with the tyranny of men’s dress traditional codes and still work within its own sartorial restrictions.” By only working with men’s clothing in these images, Udé’s work exposes the ways
masculinity has been constructed throughout time and across the globe. For example, in Sartorial Anarchy #31, Udé’s hair is styled after a wig worn by the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II in the 12th century BCE. Udé’s pose recalls Hyacinth Rigaud’s iconic portrait of the French King Louis XIV (1701). The
massive volume of Ramses’ wig is not so different from the French Sun King’s, and the Yoruba trousers he wears, echo Louis’ short breeches; French patterned socks replace the hose, and the saddle shoes substitute for Louis’ famous red-heeled shoes—all sartorial cues of masculine power from various times
Udé’s painterly style of photography proves that beauty can still have meaning in contemporary art. His early photographic series, ‘Uli’, which began in 1997, works within the confines of the kind of straight modernist photography canonized by historian and curator, Beaumont Newhall. Udé replaces the
unmarked bodies that inhabit photographs by Edward Weston or Alfred Steiglitz with bodies decorated in abstract Uli patterns used on both bodies and buildings in Nigeria, protesting what Udé refers to as “the conservative, fundamentalist … moral tone with which Beaumont Newhall framed the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ kind of photography.” Udé violates the restrictive tenants of photography that continue to linger in the contemporary art world, saying, “The camera is and should be merely one of the tools at the disposal of an artist in order to employ, to realize his or her visions. To merely duplicate and
reproduce what is in front of a camera is a boring, uninspiring fact, not art. And art shouldn’t concern itself with such square facts. Such constipated straight photography that Newhall preached and advocated is better suited for the police department, the immigration agencies and scientific purposes
where facts are of necessary import.
Besides the medium, there is no distinction between a painter and a photographer. The aim is the same. We are all in the business of making pictures. And some of us make better pictures than others. That is all! No more, no less!”
Udé promotes a global view that erodes barriers and hierarchies and opens up those interstices where we might find something unexpected: a Moroccan fez that reminds us of an Oxford mortarboard, a nineteenth century military helmet from Uzbekistan that resembles Ramses II’s coiffure, or a sixteenth-century European ruff collar made from contemporary West African fabric.
As the ‘Sartorial Anarchy’ Series continues to expand, Udé plans to execute a unique portrait of the stars working in the vibrant Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, second only to India’s Bollywood in the number of films produced each year. He correctly concludes, “I think that the Nollywood personages deserve to be exalted and immortalized within an artistic framework, in much the same way that
Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and the likes were immortalized. And I’m in the perfect position to do an excellent job of it! … My gift for portraiture and capturing the essence of elegance is very particular and uniquely my own.”
Photo credits: Leila Heller Gallery, New York
Full article published in Omenka magazine issue 4
June 21, 2021