The Radical Beauty of Ike Udé’s Nollywood Portraits

The Radical Beauty of Ike Udé’s Nollywood Portraits

On June 1, 2019, celebrated Nigerian-born photographer Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty will open at Alliance Française, located at Mike Adenuga Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos. The exhibition moves to Lagos having been presented at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, United States and the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles Photo Festival, France.

This substantial selection of works from the series is organised by the African Artists’ Foundation and is Udé first solo exhibition in his native country. It features classically staged portraits of key members of Nigeria’s 3-billion-dollar film industry, Nollywood, the second – largest in the world. Personalities include actress Genevieve Nnaji, director Stephanie Okereke Linus and filmmaker Kunle Afolayan.

The thematic thread that intertwines this body of work, culminates in the centrepiece of the collection The School of Nollywood. The title is both a play on, and departure from the artistic opulence of Raphael Sanzio Urbino’s notable fresco, The School of Athens (1509). The painting depicts prominent Greek philosophers posed against a grandiose architectural framework. With his portraits, Udé challenges inferior Western stereotypes thrust on Africans, while presenting them as a people of great intellect and of creative agency.

Iké Udé has lived in New York for over three decades and is best known for his conceptual photographic portraits and self- portraiture, in which he fuses his theatrical selves and multiple personae. His works have been widely exhibited and collected both privately and by institutions, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian Institution and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He is author of Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty (Skira, 2016), Style Files: The World’s Most Elegantly Dressed (Harper Collins, 2008) and Beyond Decorum (MIT Press, 2000) and was publisher of the seminal international magazine, aRUDE (1995 – 2009). He was also a 2017 TED Global speaker and has featured on the coveted Vanity Fair International Best Dressed List three times.

In these exclusive interviews with Ike Udé and his project manager Osahon Akpata, Omenka sheds more light on Nollywood Portraits, A Radical Beauty, its triumphs and challenges, and more significantly, its continuing legacy.

You enjoy a reputation as a master portraitist in comparison to such iconic artists as Van Gogh and Rembrandt, and your project ‘Nollywood Portraits, A Radical Beauty’ featured; an international touring art exhibition, which commenced at Arles Photo Festival, the Toronto Film Festival and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago; a book published by Milan-based Skira and a documentary film. How did you come about the idea for the project and why was it necessary?

Iké Udé: It’s quite simple. I’ve lived most of my life in New York City. I see Africa clearly from without than I’d have seen it from within. So I have a clearer picture of what bedevils her—the paucity or near absence of grand African narratives that are truly aspirational, iconic, result oriented and fundamental in nature, and with evolving future potential. So I sought to employ Nollywood Portraits, a documentary and traveling exhibition to introduce, as it were, a new grand paragraph or chapter in the African narrative.

How would you react to criticism about Nollywood’s pandering to populist tastes and its focus on the fantastical, largely ignoring its propensity to promote our traditional values and challenge negative Western stereotypes thrust on Nigeria and Africa?

Iké Udé: I perfectly understand the criticism but it’s also dwelling on the obvious shortcomings of the industry. The obvious is invariably not nuanced. Nollywood clearly needs the pragmatic support and love of both its critics and government; moreover, and this is key, it needs the critical support of the Nigerian and African bourgeoisie. It is presently not receiving enough to be able to deal with truly sophisticated, elegant and intellectually stimulating movies. The cultivation of the truly elegant, sophisticated and profound is a process that requires time, devotion, discipline, the love for setting the bar ever so high and that consistency of desire for perfection! Even here in America, the Hollywood films and television are for the large part vulgar and basic as they are appealing to the common denominator who are not sophisticated, elegant or terribly well educated. I don’t know, but the same is probably true for India which, for the most part, is notoriously kitsch, even tacky. So you can imagine how difficult it is for Nollywood who are operating under extremely stressful third world, even primitive conditions. Quite frankly, I don’t know how they do it as I personally wouldn’t want to work under the environment that they operate in—it “aint easy” as Americans are wont to say. So I respect and admire their tenacity and DIY attitude.

According to a recent United Nations’ report, Nollywood generates $590 million dollars annually as Nigeria’s largest cultural export. What in your opinion contributes to Nollywood’s fine ranking amongst more sophisticated counterparts like Hollywood and Bollywood?

Iké Udé: The numbers. The African population is near one billion. If you figure in her diaspora, you’re looking at roughly one billion folks. And this is the first time our folks are seeing themselves mirrored in a relatively contemporaneously modish manner; albeit with relatively rough edges but far more desirable than the primitive, parochial, provincial, safari representation of Africans by Western media hegemony. I’m surprised that Nollywood isn’t generating more than that. They ought to aim to triple that sum within a few more years because $590 million dollars isn’t at all impressive—way too modest, if you ask me. I mean, one single, well-made Nollywood movie, with a grand, beautiful, elegantly tailored, exciting narrative can easily generate $590 million or more. Now that would be awesome and I believe it can easily happen in the right hands and minds with clever personalities.

Please tell us the challenges you encountered in realising this documentary and some of the highlights we should expect from it.

Iké Udé: First, thank you for letting us use Omenka Gallery for all photo sessions on the project. That was a major obstacle you cleared for us. It was a time-consuming project and it exhausted me considerably—both mentally and physically. After finishing the portraits, for, almost two years, I couldn’t and didn’t want to make one single portrait. The obvious challenges of working in Nigeria aside, it was a singularly rewarding subject. It is truly a homecoming for me. It reengaged me with my folks and bridged my alienation and gap with them. It made me find or rediscover a profound love, sympathies and empathies for Africa and Africans. Since this project, my Pan Africanism is at its most purest and ennobled.

What legacy do you hope to achieve with ‘Nollywood Portraits, A Radical Beauty’?

Iké Udé: It is a portrait project for the ages which its true and radical significance hasn’t begun to be reckoned with. With time, its radical, cultural significance and magnitude would be inevitably reckoned with. It is presently under the radar for obvious aesthetic-political reasons played out here in the West—the seat of global power—that dictates nearly everything, including how the African should be represented or misrepresented. But that’s fine as no one can indefinitely suppress or exile the inevitable and the beautiful.

Iké Udé

Osahon Akpata: ‘Nollywood Portraits’ is a body of work by critically acclaimed artist and style maven, Iké Udé. I am pleased to have worked with him on this monumental project, made up of a coffee table book, traveling photo exhibition and documentary film, which seeks to take elegant images of Africans to the highest art and cultural institutions globally. Working on this project has been a whole journey and so it is difficult to identify which experiences stand out more. A particular high note for me however, has been the overwhelming support by the Nollywood personalities. Much of what has been achieved could not have been done without their support. It was amazing to see how enthusiastic many were about nominating and putting me in contact with their other peers to be part of the project. This shows how supportive they are of their colleagues and their willingness to help each other grow and shine. A few others were also generous with their content by providing us with images and footage from their movies to be featured in the documentary. It was generally a collective effort and most people were happy to chip in and support in any way possible.

Monalisa Chinda

What are some challenges you faced in bringing the project to completion, and how have you been able to overcome them?

Osahon Akpata: First, let me take a moment to thank you again profusely for opening up Omenka Gallery as the venue for the shoot. You removed a major challenge we would have faced and made executing the project much easier. The first challenge I faced was making contact with a sizeable number of people in an industry I had little connection to, and then convincing these busy professionals to give up some time to do a portrait shoot. We needed over 50 subjects to make the project worthwhile and ended up with 64. Funding was another challenge as we needed money for production of the portraits and finishing the documentary. We are grateful to Ford Foundation for supporting the upcoming exhibition in Lagos with a grant and to Alliance Française at Mike Adenuga Centre for providing a venue for the exhibition.

Despite its acclaim, what challenges have prevented the Nigerian film industry from moving forward?

Osahon Akpata: There are three related factors I feel are hindering the growth of Nollywood – piracy, distribution and funding. A weak regulatory environment allows for the infringement of intellectual property rights. This in turn makes it difficult for the filmmakers to monetise their content, a problem further compounded by the lack of cinema screens in the country. According to a recent report published by Goethe-Institut, Framing the Shot, Nigeria has 142 cinema screens, which represent 0.74 screens per million people in comparison to India and the United States where there are 8.37 and 124.49 screens per million people respectively. These factors make it difficult to raise adequate funding to invest in story development, production equipment, sets and several other inputs required to produce films that can compete effectively on the global stage.

Eku Edewor

What is the release date of the documentary?

Osahon Akpata: We aim to release the film later this year. We are currently on the international film festival circuit and will soon commence discussions with potential distributors. I am pleased to announce that an exhibition of ‘Nollywood Portraits’ will be coming to Lagos from June 1 – 16, 2019 at Alliance Francaise at Mike Adenuga Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos where we also plan on screening the documentary, Nollywood in Focus.

Osahon Akpata

This exhibition was made possible through the support of the Ford Foundation and Alliance Française,Lagos.

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