Iké Udé: Nollywood Portraits in Exhibition at the Smithsonian

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In celebration of Nigeria’s Independence Day, the Smithsonian museum of African Arts launched a series titled +234 Connect: A Celebration of Nigerian Creativity. This series was open to the public between September 28th and october 2nd; art lovers enjoyed film screenings, masterclasses, artist talks and conversations with filmmakers such as the chat with producer Okey Ogunjiofor and film-maker Muhyi Ali where they discussed the 1992 movie Living in Bondage and how it sparked the beginnings of Nollywood. The series is inspired by the museum’s ongoing exhibitions of  Iké Udé: Portraits of Nollywood and Before Nollywood: The Ideal Photo Studio. The exhibition highlights the art of Nollywood to engage audience with African creativity and expression, and engage the global African diaspora. The exhibition is set to end in February 2023. 

“Nollywood is the new face of Africa: it is modern, postmodern, bold, sexy, wicked, shrewd and with a contagious attitude worth catching.” —Iké Udé, 2016

Iké Udé, a multimedia artist, focuses his attention on the remarkable individuals that power Nollywood, Nigeria’s $3 billion film industry, to honor the luminous beauty and mysticism of African visionaries. Udé’s images combine color, clothing, and other identifiers to create attractive yet unexpected portraits. He is known for his performative and iconoclastic approach and colorful sense of arrangement. Despite decades of attempts by Eurocentric art history and conceptions of beauty to erase African identities, his images make a forceful statement about the strength of African identities.

While the subjects are glamorous and elegant, the portraits themselves exhibit an artistic balance of composition, form, and color. The opulent features in these photographs are evocative of what is regarded as “classical” portraiture. The elements that give these portraits their extraordinary beauty also contribute to making the Nollywood Portraits Udé’s most ambitious body of work to date.

Iké Udé has continually questioned the boundaries of art, performance, and style throughout his career and established himself at the forefront of each. Udé is arguably most known for his performative, frequently autobiographical style of photography, which is frequently audacious, sardonic, humorous, and inquisitive.

The artist uses the eye of a master painter to capture each subject’s unique essence in the Nollywood Portraits. Udé, a committed student (and critic) of art history, uses color and light to paint portraits that are expertly finished with a careful eye for detail and the use of extraordinarily rich, lively hues. The images by Udé offer a topical dialogue about the social and cultural effects of Nollywood while speaking the rich visual language of classical portraiture.

Udé’s photographs speak the rich visual language of classical portraiture, while offering a timely discussion about the social and cultural impact of Nollywood. These portraits convey the presence and elegance of those who have made Nigerian cinema what it is today: a globally recognized movie industry that has captured the hearts of fans worldwide.

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