Genevieve Nnaji, Alexx Ekubo, & Osas Ighodaro. These Nigerian celebrities are just a few out of 64 alluring subjects in artist Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty.  If any of these names sound familiar to you, then chances are you are one out of millions addicted to one of Nigeria’s proudest exports; Nollywood.

Nollywood’s origins date back pre and post independent Nigeria. Like most theatrical movements, it started on the stage with theater productions and later 35mm films were born. However, it was the 90’s when Nollywood started to really take off. Digital recording equipment prices began to drop and savvy directors became entrepreneurs.  In 1993 the Igbo language VHS tape of Chris Obirapu’s “Living in Bondage” took Nigeria by storm and started to cement Nollywood’s status as a viable industry.

Genevieve Nnaji
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
36.547 x 40 in. / 92.83 x 101.6 cm

Today Nollywood is the biggest employer of labour, only second to agriculture providing more than 1 million jobs. Over 2,000 films are produced a year making it the second largest producer of feature films in the world. This makes it second to Bollywood and right ahead of Hollywood.  Annually, the films gross $600 million making up 5% of the GDP of Nigeria.

While the films you’re familiar with can cost upwards of millions of dollars, Nollywood films cost roughly $25,000 to produce.  Due to its intense popularity, it’s clear that there’s much more to Nollywood than the budget.  Take away the glitz and the glam, and you have endearing stories that will last a lifetime.

My Intro to Nollywood

Before writing this post, I thought it would be best to completely immerse myself in the subject. In the name of research, I watched several hours of Netflix. Initially, I thought I would watch 1 or 2 movies. However, after reading intriguing plot descriptions I found myself adding another film to the queue. By my third movie, I became hooked on Nollywood.

One film I watched was about a serial killer who targeted virgin women in the village. Another film was about a girl whose boyfriend dumped her; she then goes on a mission to win him back by dating a movie star.

Taiwo Ajai-Lycett
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
30.467 x 40.667 in. / 77.39 x 103.29 cm

Each film was missing the bells and whistles of a major Hollywood blockbuster. There weren’t explosions engulfing the room with my surround sound. Skin wasn’t impeccably doll-like with layers and layers of makeup. Hair wasn’t always impeccably coiffed.  At times you could even see tiny beads of sweat dripping from the actor’s faces.

The stories are authentic, and at times it can be a little over the top but I’m sure we can find a bit of ourselves in Nollywood.

Nollywood at its core is raw, endearing, and timeless.

Iké Udé: The Photographer

What better person, than artist Iké Udé to capture the timeless and elegant beauty of Nollywood. We caught up with him  to learn more about the inspiration behind his Nollywood exhibit, his early influences, and the Nollywood film that we need to add to our Netflix queue.

Without further ado, let’s explore the radical beauty of Nollywood, through the lens of Iké Udé.

Iké Udé
Iké Udé

TCL: Can you tell us the origins of your love of photography? When did you first fall in love with the art? What was your aha moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do.

IU: If I may use your term “origins”, I would say that it owes a lot to the professional photography studios that were quite ubiquitous throughout Nigeria and as well as West Africa if not the entire continent. Then came the auto-point-and-shoot Polaroid camera. It became hugely popular during my boarding school and we thoroughly enjoyed using it for varied reasons and purposes. And of course, my family had a long-run ritual of dressing up for the camera and building a visual family narrative through photography. In the process, I learned how to engage the camera to best advantage and desirable results.
Being photographed or being the photographer are invariably and effectively a performative act—hence photography, the photographic performance, and photographic results are not natural and needn’t be. I didn’t necessarily have an “aha moment” as you put it. I’m terribly and obsessively invested in the visual world, in looking, in analyzing imageries, imagining things visually and beyond bounds of sorts. And just as well, I was a practicing painter before I employed the photo medium for my practice. The twin understanding and fluency in these two mediums are immeasurably advantageous in a post-straight photography age.
Uti Nwachukwu
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
36.467 x 40.667 in. / 92.63 x 103.29 cm

TCL: Let’s say we are in a gallery with the work of many photographers. What tells us that we are looking at the photography of Iké Udé?

IU: My pictures are distinctively singular in style, organization, framing, poetics, color, composition,  the intangibles and in sympathy with classicism, the antique, in concert with the contemporary.

Kunle Afolayan
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
36.467 x 40.667 in. / 92.63 x 103.29 cm

TCL: How does early life in Lagos inspire your work? 

IU: Although relatively very young then, my early life in Lagos, Enugu, Port Harcourt, etc., had a lasting influence in my appreciation of dressing, costumes, individual countenance, deportment, sophistication, etc.

TCL: For our readers who have never been to Nigeria, what do you want us to know about Nigeria?

IU: Nigeria is boundless with great talents but miserably failed by their power elite and series of pathetic governments who’re patently tone-deaf to high culture and indifferent to development of the nation and its mass population. There is nary a solid middle-class; thus a horrific chasm between the incredibly wealthy and incredibly poor. It’s disheartening, to say the least, and yet thankfully reversible under the right leadership and visionary.

Nollywood as the Subject

TCL: What made you want to feature Nollywood? 

IU: It’s such a cultural force and the best thing out Africa since the Pyramids, obelisk, Pharoah and the Queens. Nollywood is the first Nigerian made cultural export that has profound hegemony across the African continent.

TCL:  What is something in a Nollywood film that you may not necessarily see in a Hollywood production?

IU: Besides Hollywood’s technical edge, polish from decades of practice, evolution, and perfecting of skills or tools of the trade—there’s basically not much of a difference between the two—they are all in the business of telling stories and are all too human.

Chioma Ude
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
34.687 x 40 in. / 88.1 x 101.6 cm

TCL: Why do you think people are drawn to Nollywood and what makes it such a strong cultural phenomenon?

IU: Nollywood, simply put, embodies the varied strains of the African narratives. And because of the authorial autonomy the filmmakers enjoy, their movies have such authenticity that no foreign filmmaker can possibly achieve.

TCL: How did you select your subjects? What characteristics did you look for when determining who should be featured?

IU: I pretty much photographed a cross-section of the industry. I also play the role of the director, choreographer, stylist, therapist and coach when I execute a portrait. As such, I can pretty much poeticize just about anyone that I make a portrait of.

Linda Ihuoma Ejiofor
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
40.567 x 40.667 in. / 103.04 x 103.29 cm

TCL: Can you tell the story behind one of the portraits? What went into making this photo?

IU: My portraits are first and foremost, formally conceived, executed and lovingly realized. I often tend to employ geometrical forms in my work, especially the triangle. Painters such as Raphael and Leonardo de Vinci often used geometrical formats in their pictures. Most of Raphael’s Madonnas were based on the triangle—from the The Alba Madonna, Madonna in the Meadow, Small Cowper Madonna, The Madonna of the Pinks to Madonna of the Goldfinch.

The portrait of Eku Edewor is basically a triangle, composed in the classical mode. In addition, I lovingly tended to the sheen/light of her dress; sculpted the voluptuous folds of her dress and evenly distributed the colors on all four sides of the pictorial squares. And like the great masters, I invest in the imaginative, the stylized, composition, timelessness of geometrical structures, the poetic intangibles with tinctures of disarming truths.

Eku Edewor
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
40.467 x 40.667 in. / 102.79 x 103.29 cm

TCL: In your earlier work, Sartorial Anarchy you were the subject. In what ways did that project inspire Nollywood?

IU: It helped me to deepen, understand and become even more fluent in solving the inherent problems of organizing and making a picture work excellently.

Sartorial Anarchy #30, 2013
Pigment on Satin Paper
45.7 x 36.5 in / 116.1 x 92.71 cm


TCL: What is the message you wish to convey with Nollywood?

IU: That beauty can be a radical intervention and that such radicalism can be beautiful.

TCL: If it’s our first time watching a Nollywood film, what film would you recommend we see?

IU: Kunle Ofolayan’s October 1 is pretty good. A lot of his work are very good and he is probably one of the best and ambitious directors in Nollywood. And just as well, he’s a lovely individual and artist.

Sadiq Daba
Pigment on Satin Rag Paper
36 x 40 in. / 91.44 x 101.6 cm

TCL: What’s next for you Iké?

IU: I plan to execute Bollywood Portraits and finally Hollywood Portraits, in that order. That then completes the trilogy. After all, the two younger “woods”, say—Bollywood and Nollywood—owe to the original American Hollywood.

Alexx Ekubo
Pigment Satin Rag Paper
36.467 x 40.667 in. / 92.63 x 103.29 cm

Nollywood Portraits: Radical Beauty develops along three directions: with the exhibition, running until December 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography of Chicago and that will be displayed at other venues; with a documentary film, Nollywood in focus; and with a book, published by Skira  and Forward by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Don’t forget to browse through Netflix and get lost in the world of Nollywood. See below the trailer for Nollywood in Focus.