Ike Ude takes Nollywood to the Smithsonian

Ike Ude’s portrait of Nollywood’s actors, actresses and directors is currently showing at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art with Touria El Glaoui, founding director of 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair as host.

The exhibition is proceeding under the title “Africa is beautiful” and features portraits of Nollywood A-listers like Eku Edewor, Alexx Ekubo, Enyinna Nwigwe, Joke Silva, Tope Oshin and many more. The exhibition will feature some of the subjects in conversation with the artist around the themes of art, cinema and the power of beauty.

Find below Toni Kan’s essay putting the book, artist, subjects and Nollywood in context.

Every age has its chronicles, every era its historians.

Sometimes, what they capture is history told in a hurry, with events and defining moments captured in the gush.

Sometimes it is in introspection, with the passage of time, providing both perspective and clarity.

No medium has the capacity to capture and preserve for posterity epochal moments as much as photography does. It is both witness and participant, and this is exactly what photographer and portraitist Ike Ude is seeking to achieve with his documentation of Nollywood icons from established actors like Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke to newbies like Kehinde Bankole and Linda Ejiofor and from Kunle Afolayan to Dame Taiwo Ajayi Lycett; this is Nollywood history told powerfully in pictures with a generation defined by pretty faces, crow’s feet, varicose veins, pouts and piercing gazes.

In capturing these stars and star-makers who oil the engines of the third largest movie industry in the world, Ike Ude is documenting for posterity the pioneers and icons of Nollywood at a moment of transition but by the very act of documentation, Ike Ude is inserting himself into the frame as participant in this filmic universe called Nollywood.

In his portraits, you will find Nollywood in all its glory from crown princes to princelings, debutantes to doyennes, power brokers to power players many of them captured at the dawn of their careers and some at the very apogee and twilight of theirs.

These are iconic portraits drawn at moments of superb clarity when these stars of Nollywood are making the transition from legends into immortals.

The closest to what Ike is attempting would be Guy Webster’s 60s portraits of the emergent Hollywood elite from Jack Nicholson to Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel to Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda to Jim Morrison, Natalie Wood to Raquel Welch, Jimi Hendrix to  Mick Jagger. Webster’s were portraits of men and women whose sole claim to fame was their potential and they were all caught in moments of introspection or reflection, play or work, in familiar locales and surroundings.

Ike Ude’s subjects and the portraits that emerge are different. The environment is all his, a seemingly other-worldy tableau that recalls the very best of Frida Kahlo. There is in Ike Ude’s portraits a unique synergy, an alchemy almost, in which image and background become one with the subject subsumed in the tableau while the tableau becomes a part of the subject. There is only word for that; magic.

What do photographic portraits do? They capture a moment in time and in capturing moments, they assume a cryogenic effect by freezing time for posterity. Ike’s genius lies in achieving that freezing of time.

But then there is more; something quaint and quirky, expressed in his dandification of his subjects and the almost dreamlike backgrounding that accompanies his portraits.

Usually full length, the portraits produced by Ike Ude are studies in form and colour compelling your gaze to linger and forcing you always to experience them as conversation pieces.

Nollywood has captured the African imagination not just on account of the vast dvd sales – often pirated – but largely on account of the dedicated Africa Magic channels on the pan-african cable network, DSTV and now on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

The term Africa Magic has come to embody the unique narratives that drive the movies and the directors’ constant resort to the deus ex machina of the fetish and fantastic in their resolution of the plots.

That term is uniquely suited to Ike Ude’s portraits with their exuberant colours, their otherworldly essence, the quirky poses and constant insertion of a dove or cat or dog into the tableau. All these add to the other-worldy-Africa-Magic feel of the portraits.

While Ike Ude’s wide ranging and comprehensive work must be singled out for its singularity of purpose, breath of vision and comprehensive girth, one must point out that he is not the first to document eras and epoch using the cyclopic eye of the lens.

There are forebears who charted a tradition in whose footsteps he now walks and it is to Hollywood that we must repair.

In Hollywood, the closest approximation, industry wise, to what Ike Ude is attempting with this book would be works by George Hurrell to Guy Webster, Mario Testino to Annie Leibovitz, David La Chappel to Helmut Newton.Where Hurrel went for glamour and elegance, Webster had an eye for the visceral and unardorned “as a photographer capable not only of capturing the emotional nuance of the era, but also of helping to define it” according to his biographers Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik in their 2014 book, Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons: The Photography of Guy Webster .

Mario Testino toed the line of Hurrel but with more polish and constant deviations and a clear focus on the subject as the object of the portrait while Annie Liebovitz is more contemporaneous, more commercial and defined by an eye for the definitive shot that captures the angst and IT-ness of moment.

David Lachappele’s portraits evince a retro feel but are defined primarily by their stylized tableaux, the sexualized subjects and shocking presentation while Helmut Newton seemed fixated on the idea of the body as the defining attribute of his subjects.

In contemplating the works of these other portrait photographers one notices, almost immediately, the constant focus on the subject, especially the face or in the case of nudes, the body, as the object of the shoot but there is a sharp shift in portraits by Ike Ude which are, as earlier mentioned, usually full length and defined by a quirky dandification, an almost colouring in of the subject into his background something Ike Ude has explained as coming from his past as a painter.

“I was formerly a painter, hence, my “photographs” employ a painterly language and longer-time process in the making of the pictures.”

The “making-ness” of the picture is the definitive word because the portraits that emerge are no longer just pictures showing a moment of time captured by exposed film; they become works of art realised over periods of time.

Mention has been made of Ike Ude’s peers and forebears in Hollywood but the ultimate reference would be to a 16th century Renaissance artist, Raphael, whose famous large composition, School of Athens (Scuola di Atene) is the template for Ike Ude’s Nollywood masterpiece, the masterly 26 x 16 feet mural –like School of Nollywood, which is the culmination of his Nollywood portraits.

Ude’s masterpiece is a historical document, a definitive snapshot of an era, a larger-than-life representation of an industry, a portrait that will provide bragging rights for those captured within its frame.

Nollywood sweetheart, Genevieve Nnaji is the centre-piece of the composition, reclining on a chaise lounge and looking regal as befits the queen of Nollywood. She has taken the place of Plato and Aristotle, the main figures of the Athenian school of philosophy in Raphael’s fresco.

But it is Ike Ude’s cameo that will excite the keen observer because in keeping with the earlier observed role as observer and participant, Ike Ude like many artistes of antiquity and contemporary auteurs has managed to, in a beguiling case of peek-a-bo, insinuate his visage into the frame.


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