Behind the Mask: Photographer Iké Udé

Portraits created by the photographer and cultural arbiter Iké Udé offer both celebrations and critiques of art and fashion
Behind the Mask: Photographer Iké Udé

Sartorial Anarchy #7, featuring “Medussa” hai

I was born in Nigeria and spent my early childhood in Lagos, a diverse, bustling city that is today the capital of the multibillion-dollar film industry known as Nollywood.
For me, this explosion of creativity is the new face of Africa—the most influential contribution to the continent’s culture since the pharaohs and the pyramids commanded the Nile. Nollywood is modern, bold, sexy, wicked, shrewd, and with a contagious attitude worth catching. That’s why I spent 2014 through 2016 making portraiture of the leading actors, directors and producers, some of which were just published by Skira in a book called Nollywood Portraits.

People inquire how I developed my passion for photography and portraiture. One answer might be that when I was a child, my family would dress up and pose for biweekly group portraits. I had strong ideas even then about style. When I was six, my uncle caught me using a slingshot to catapult stones at passers-by whose way of dressing or walking I disliked. He told me my reaction was improper, but I was not deterred and saw it as not so much a moral/ethical argument but as an aesthetic decision.

When I was 18, I came to New York and began making abstract art. I got a
job as a doorman at M.K., the exotic nightclub/museum that Eric Goode and André Balazs created near the Flatiron Building. All the beautiful people gravitated there and I became addicted to Manhattan madness after dark. During this period, I became friends with the art impresario Henry Geldzahler, and his erudition and kindness opened my eyes and many doors.

Although, relatively speaking, I love the art and fashion scenes in New York, I have always been amused by the pomposity and superficiality prevalent in that world. As a comment on that, I conceptually employed the most pop-cultural platform, the magazine cover, to critique these industries. To compound the narrative, I posed as the model on most of the covers but with a gender-ambiguous countenance.

From there, I founded aRUDE magazine, first in print and now online. This led to The Chic Index, also online, and a thick tome called Style File, where some best-dressed personalities sat for my camera and tape recorder. I myself have been named three times to The International Best-Dressed List, but I see myself as an outsider looking in, not an insider looking out.

Over the years, I attained certain ideas: The art of portraiture is essentially a performance even when it doesn’t appear as such. The face in a portrait is a mask even when it reeks of realism. An obvious smile in a portrait unnecessarily makes the mask too obvious. The less a work of art is understood, the more its appreciative quotient gains immeasurably. A timeless portrait is always on the cusp of the past and present while anticipating the future.

When I go to museums, I am drawn to paintings executed by the Italian and Northern Renaissance masters. The Italians for their pictorial structure, organization and dramatic effect; the Northern Renaissance masters for their lovingly rendered and alarmingly photographically accurate details.

Self-portraits are a challenge. The artist engages in self-portraiture to hopefully objectify the self in variegated forms—objectification by, of and for the self is supreme liberty. In recent years, I did a series of self-portraits called Sartorial Anarchy, in which I employed items of clothing from past to present, and from varied geographies and cultures, and used them in constructing individualized ensembles. In so doing, I collapsed time and geographies and jettisoned the originally intended meaning, ciphers and cultural assignations of these costumes.

They are currently being exhibited by the creative program Unscripted Bal Harbour. These works are unusually installed outdoors along the promenade that hugs the Atlantic Ocean in Bal Harbour, Florida. If you should find yourself strolling there in search of a cooling breeze, take a look. If these fantastical images of the Sartorial Anarchist Nigerian-American artist provoke a smile or a raised eyebrow, they have done their job.

Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty, featuring images of actors, directors and producers from the Nigerian film industry, is published by Skira.