An Interview With Sartorial Anarchist Iké Udé Who Celebrates The Radical Beauty Of Nollywood

by Johanne Affricot - Published on 27/09/2016
Iké Udé x GRIOT (c) Marco Brunelli -  Iké's studio | (c) Marco Brunelli | All the other images | Courtesy of the artist

Entering the studio of an artist is always an event that any individual should consider as a unique and unrepeatable experience. This may seem an overstatement, but as soon as Iké Udé invited me to enter his world, I was immediately struck by a sacred and magical aura pervading the studio.

Vintage shoes, colorful fabrics, outrageous wigs, fancy clothes, various objects and relics, all there, surrounding me, whispering, eager to be the protagonist of another story that their father was about to recount to his new guest “Oh, this pair of light blue shoes?” – “They’re from 1909/1910. Men’s shoes. I like them because they don’t look like men’s shoes, or what you associate with men’s shoes today. I used them in Sartorial Anarchy [Style & Sympathies’] while the jacket I’m wearing is made from an unused 1940s upholstery fabric with bird motifs. It was designed by me and assembled by my Nigerian tailor.

This iron is an antique, and represents a memory I’m strongly attached to.

griot-mag-ike-ude-nollywood-portraits-and-sartorial-anarchist - ©marco-brunelli
To speak of sacredness while referring to Udé’s studio is not far from reality since his studio is the focal point of his artistic creation, and more: “As you rightfully noted, my studio is the center of my artistic creation and life existence. In other words, my studio is everything to me: my wife, my muse, my lover, my universe in equal measure.” It is indeed here that the Nigerian-American artist brought his critically acclaimed “Sartorial Anarchy” to life, a series of (self)portraits that poeticize colors, sumptuous fabrics, clothing, and objects, and through which his idea of “cultural promiscuity” takes shape.

A cultural promiscuity that accompanies the mind in a thrilling journey throughout different cultures and time, with Udé visually articulating fractions of real-life moments and experiences accumulated over the years: “That hair up there is a reproduction of a Macaroni wig” – “Macaroni?” – “Yes, a movement that initiated around 1770 by young Brits who went to Italy. When they returned home, people stared at them with astonishment. They wore accessories normally preferred by women, with a very small hat on top.”

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Sartorial Anarchy #5, Iké Udé

While carefully browsing the Sartorial Anarchy catalog, sitting at a table and drinking a glass of some red wine [Italian, obviously, bought at a wine shop on 23st and something in the Chelsea], I immediately got the feeling of grasping a precious book of new history: “I employed different clothing and objects and blended them, regardless of their cultural and time differences. I leveled the field and combined the so-called exotic with the so-called civilized, disobeying the rules of geography and time and playing with codes and signifiers of clothing beyond what we know as fashion,” he told me. “Prada, Comme des Garçon, Paul Smith. I’m not interested in that kind of stuff at all, in people paying a high price for obtaining them. They can look stylish and elegant, and that’s fine. However, what I’m most interested in is why we use costumes, how we use them, when we use them, and where we use them.

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Sartorial Anarchy #6, Iké Udé

It might seem strange, but Udé is not obsessed with clothes despite them being an extension of his life: “There is something very fascist and tyrannical about costumes. From birth, we are made to wear clothing. Even when people die, they are dressed. And in the summer when temperatures are high…” he went on. “If I go down the street naked, someone will call the police to report my nudity,” he affirmed – “Would you feel comfortable walking naked in the street?” – “If society would allow it, I think so.” – “But costumes play a very important role in your life. To me it seems that you are a person who cares a lot about your look – “Culture insists that we remain clothed from birth to death. I’m always profoundly shocked by this realization, especially in the summer, when there is no logical/practical reason to remain clothed. This fact obviously speaks volumes about the human condition – our species’ ambivalence to its true nature and how we employ articles of clothing to negotiate nature and the cultural binary that we’ve erected and naturalized. In light of this, when I impose culture and fashion upon the body, I personalize, individualize, and stylize the fashion to suit my artistic temperament and poetic inclination.”

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Sartorial Anarchy #32, Iké Udé

His artistic temperament and poetic inclination have not gone unnoticed, considering that he was named one of Vanity Fair’s Top 100 Best Dressed for 2009, 2012, and 2013. But don’t call him a trendsetter, as some have: “I think that it’s a very stupid title. Like “Fashion Icon,” for instance. People who adopt these titles are not profound. It’s not elegant way to phrase it, especially because I love the poetic dimension of how we use costumes.”

Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty | An exhibition, a documentary, a book

Born and raised in Lagos, he attended a British boarding school. His family dressed up for biweekly portraits, exposing him to photography and portraiture at an early age. He knew he was an artist by the age of six, when he developed “a habit of firing at passers-by with a slingshot” when he “disapproved of their walk or their way of dress.”

In the early 80s the family decided to leave the country “Why did you spend all these years away?” I asked him. – “Military thugs had taken over and plundered the wealth of the country, systematically destroyed Nigeria, and continued to damage it while I was away. As far as I’m concerned, I had no bloody country to speak of. So I went away for good, became a naturalized American citizen and a New Yorker to boot, and this suited me perfectly.” But two years ago he returned to Lagos, inspired by a force called Nollywood, one of the most prolific film industries in the world (almost 2,000 titles released annually). Second only to India’s Bollywood, ahead of Hollywood, revenues top $600 million annually.

The term Nollywood was coined in the mid-90s to describe Nigeria’s vibrant film industry consisting of movies produced in the country but watched all over Africa and largely by Africans in the diaspora.

Nollywood is characterized by independent, economic, and quick filmmaking, which capitalizes on the falling prices of digital recording equipment and meets the demands of a continent for authentic stories that reflect everyday reality. An entrepreneurial rags-to-riches story, its producers are private individuals who receive little or no government assistance to make and distribute films across the continent despite the deficiencies related to infrastructure and trade barriers: “Nollywood autonomy, independence. It is made up of individuals who have a bold and audacious vision of who they are as Nigerians, as Africans, without any Western or European funding. A sort of DIY punk attitude. That’s what I love the most about Nollywood,” said Udé. “It is not controlled by anyone. There are of course cases of capital arriving from abroad and thus deciding the film’s angle. But this isn’t Nollywood. Nollywood is something else.”

In October 2014, Udé returned to Lagos after three decades abroad and captured an impressive cross-section of the industry including renowned screen icon Genevieve Nnaji, veteran actor Richard Mofe-Damijo, the established actor/director Stephanie Okereke, maverick filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, as well as the next generation of rising stars. The aim of this project is to celebrate these African celebrities in the timeless, classic, elegant style he is known for.

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Kunle Afolayan (2014-2016) – Iké Udé

It was an incredible, 2-year journey that I wanted to properly recount.

GRIOT: When you went back to Nigeria what did you feel?

Iké Udé: For the most part, I observed and thoroughly sought out potential artistic resources for future projects. You could say that my feelings were channeled through discovering new material for my art more than anything else.

In this project you have focused your attention on Nollywood. You made it because you felt that as an artist, an African, and a Nigerian, you had to celebrate its power and beauty? Or in a certain sense you did want to alleviate the nostalgia caused by having been away for so long?

I left the country in the early 80s for various reasons—for the continuation of my studies and for the pursuit of various activities. Even though my artistic temperament is fundamentally Romantic, I’m not at all the nostalgic type; in this context, I am not a nationalist, though my sympathies are profoundly Pan-African.

I saw something huge happening in Nigeria and in Africa and thought: Now isn’t that something; isn’t this the real “Out of Africa” narrative than, for instance, the 1937 colonial melodramatic memoir cooked up by Isak Dinesen or even the odious 1899 “Heart of Darkness” kitsch-cum-fantasy-cum-melodrama-voodoo-lit manufactured by Joseph Conrad. Nollywood is perhaps the best thing to come out of Africa since the Pyramids, the Pharaohs, and the Queen’s Obelisks. That is why I focused my attention on it. And it is the most ambitious work I’ve ever embarked on since my artistic career began.

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Linda Ejiofor (2014 – 2016) Iké Udé

Ironically, besides the two admirable Nigerians, Osahon Akpata, my Nollywood Project Manager, and Kalu Kalu Ugwuomo, my commission-portrait Manager [and the co-producer of the documentary “Nollywood in Focus”] I had zero support from both the Nigerian government and the private sector and, conversely, zero support from other African governments or their private sectors. But it was worth moving forward, because this project is certainly a noble cause and it doesn’t get better than that. By continuing, I fancy myself alternating between a Homeric, Byronic, and Mandela type of hero, in no particular order.

Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty.” What do the terms Radical and Beauty mean to you when talking about Nollywood?

To me, beauty has always been the most perfect, the most profound, the most lasting agent of change, immortality, timelessness, and hence the most radical of all artistic agents. The African image and beauty has been trashed by Western colonial interventions and ironically carried forth and perpetuated by the clownish, so-called African leaders who are, collectively, an immeasurable and constant source of embarrassment. A pale imitation of the colonialists or even worse than the colonialists to boot.

Your previous work, Sartorial Anarchy is largely centered on self-portrait, where the self (you) is meant to work as a cultural signifier and marker. In 2013, Artsy listed you as one of the 10 Masters of Self-Portraiture along with Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Frida Khalo, Andy Warhol, Yue Minjun. For this project, you photographed many celebrities of different generations and genders. How much of yourself have you seen in them and how much of them have you seen in you?

The self can only exist in relation to other selves. We all mirror each other and are essentially of the one and same human race and its attendant social groups. So, yes, there is a lot of myself that I gleaned from all of the Nollywood subjects: they are me and I am them. And as a portraitist who loves to poeticize and idealize each and every one of my subjects, I see them as extensions of myself, as extensions of my self-portraits.

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The School of Nollywood (2014- 2016) inspired by 1509 Raphael’s The School of Athens – Iké Udé

Three Nollywood movies to watch now and why.

I have no favorites and won’t subject my taste on anyone. Besides, I couldn’t careless nor am I into the movies done by Hollywood, Bollywood, or Nollywood, but rather their personalities and pop quotient that interest me.

An aforism for our reader from your limited edtion book on Nollywood.

How about these three: The best art aspires to be meaningless as to meaningfully stir the imagination without let; When the beauty instinct is pleased, there isn’t a note more needed in a picture; To make visible a poetic quality of being is a great achievement in a portrait.

Nollywood Portraits at MoCP museum

The Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty exhibition, which will include a dozen selected individual portraits and a grand group portrait of 64 personalities, will run from October 20th to December 23rd, 2016, at The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College Chicago. You can support this monumental project by making a donation through the kickstarter campaign  launched by the museum, and later this year it will be possible to buy the hardcover book in a limited edition.

Further works and exhibitions

Udé is the author of Style File: the World’s Most Elegantly Dressed, published by Harper Collins in 2008. Style File is a remarkable volume that profiles more than 55 of the most influential arbiters of style in the world today, offering frank insight to their views on fashion and life, through evocative interviews and lush photography. Included among the many notable designers, artists, and public figures are John Galliano, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Isabel and Ruben Toledo, Victoire de Castellane, André Leon Talley,Dita Von Teese, Ute Lemper, Francesco Clemente, Christian Louboutin, Diane von Furstenberg, Lapo Elkann, Frédéric Malle, and many others.

His work has exhibited and is in the permanent collections of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Art, Sheldon Museum, RISD Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and elsewhere around the world.

Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty website

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Johanne Affricot
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.