The Global Art Project

Iké Udé: Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty

The Nigerian born, New York-based artist Iké Udé is internationally renowned for his performative, often autobiographical approach to photography. Strongly influenced by the histories of art and fashion, his portraits involve the kind of excessive pagentry one might associate with ornate Renaissance painting. According to the online magazine Artsy,  “As the Renaissance reasserted the importance of individuality (and mirrors became more widely available), self-portraiture exploded as a genre of its own—one that persists today in ever-expanding forms. Whether as a traditional model, a vehicle for formal experiments, or a stand-in for personas or identities, artists take advantage of the self as a readily available subject, both immediately relatable and rich with complex associations.” In the same article Iké Udé is listed as one of the ten greatest masters of portraiture, placed among artists such as Rembrandt, Warhol, and Cindy Sherman. 


During a career that has already spanned decades, Iké Udé has consistently challenged classic distinctions between art and fashion. With the launch of his legendary art, culture and fashion magazine aRUDE in 1995, he set the standard for what would be a flourish of similar magazines worldwide in the many years to follow. Iké Udé’s participation in a long list of important solo and group exhibitions has contributed to his prominence as a contemporary artist. His work is frequently exhibited at leading museums and institutions around the world and is also included in the collections of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY; The Smithsonian National Museum, Washington, DC; and The Museum of Art and Design, NY to name only a few. Beyond Decorum (MIT Press, 2000), which accompanied a traveling exhibition and was the first comprehensive publication about his photography; Style File: The World’s Most Elegantly Dressed (Harper Collins, 2008), and Style and Sympathies, published on the occasion of his solo exhibiton at Leila Heller Gallery in 2013, are among his most noteworthy publications.

Nollywood Portraits : A Radical Beauty is arguably IkéUdé’s most ambitious and culturally significant body of work to date. The full version of the exhibition, which will tour internationally,  features 64 impeccably mastered individual portraits printed as pigment on satin rag paper (36.54” x 40” each), and a group portrait printed as UV ink on photographic SL linen (15’ 5” x 25’ 3”). Entitled The School of Nollywood, this large-scale portrait is created in the spirt of Raphael’s High Renaissance fresco The School of Athens. The exhibition is complemented by a feature-length documentary film Nollywood in Focus in which Iké Udé interviews the most important actors and players in Nigerian cinema.

Iké Udé captures the essence of each of his subjects with the skill of a master painter.  His painstakingly composed portraits are tweaked to perfection through his keen attention to every detail and his use of vivid, vibrant colors. The result is an unusually powerful counterpoint to the instant imagery typical of our digital age. These photographs speak the rich visual language of classical portraiture, while the context extends the conversation to a timely discussion about the social and cultural impact of Nollywood worldwide.

These portraits convey the style and elegance of the individuals who have played an active role in making Nigerian cinema what it is today: a globally recognized movie industry that has captured the hearts of fans all over the African contintent and  throughout the African diaspora. Although the history of Nigerian cinema dates back to the late nineteenth century, these portraits convey what Nollywood, a term that was coined twenty years ago, means today. If Nollywood’s  ranking as the second largest film industry worldwide is purely quantitative, these are the individuals who are working to improve its qualitative ranking in tact with its ever-increasing visibility worldwide. While each of the portraits capture what makes Nollywood sparkle, the exhibition as a whole emphasizes the significance of Nollywood as a cultural phenomenon that has succeeded in transcending cultures and continents, with an overall impact that can only be compared to Hollywood or Bollywood.  

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated Skira publication, with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr., an introduction by Chigozie Obioma, and essays by Sarah Nuttall, Osahan Akpala, Olu Oguibe, Helen Trompeteler, and Toni Kan.