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TEDGlobal 2017

Iké Udé: The radical beauty of Africa, in portraits

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Throughout his colorful career and bodies of work, Iké Udé has found creative ways to reject the negative portrayal of Africans rampant in Western media. In this tour of his work, he shares evocative portraits that blend clothing, props and poses from many cultures at once into sharp takes on the varied, complex beauty of Africa.

- Artist
The work of Nigerian-born Iké Udé explores a world of dualities: photographer/performance artist, artist/spectator, African/post-nationalist, mainstream/marginal, individual/everyman and fashion/art. Full bio

In 1996, I was commissioned
by the Guggenheim Museum
00:12
to execute a large body of work
called "Uses of Evidence."
00:18
It was a cube --
00:25
a very well large cube, at that.
00:27
Each side had a window
00:30
in order for the spectators
to view the interior of the structure.
00:32
The exterior of the structure
was a collage of Africa and Africans
00:37
as portrayed in the Western
media and literature.
00:44
A look through the windows
revealed a sharp contrast:
00:48
within the cubes are tranquil,
civilized, domestic images
00:55
of African family members, friends
01:01
and Nigerian professionals,
01:07
ranging from writers, poets,
fashion designers, etc.
01:09
The thing is,
01:17
both the exterior and the interior
images are quite true.
01:19
But the images captured by Western media
01:25
overwhelmingly depict Africans
as basically primitive at best,
01:31
or barely distinguishable
from the African animals.
01:39
Not much has changed,
I'm afraid, since 1996,
01:44
when I executed this work.
01:50
I began my professional
photography practice in 1994,
01:56
but my passion and enthusiasm
for photography
02:01
goes back to childhood,
02:06
when my parents arranged
for us to be photographed
02:10
by a professional photographer
02:15
on almost a monthly basis.
02:18
It was also an opportunity for my siblings
to dress up in our latest gear,
02:21
made by our tailor.
02:28
Later, when I was in boarding school,
02:30
my friends and I bought Polaroid cameras,
02:33
and then I began to experiment
with self-portraiture,
02:38
or what I would call
02:42
"proto-selfie auto-portraits."
02:45
(Laughter)
02:48
"Cover Girl 1994" was my first major work
02:50
that was critically well received
in the US and Europe
02:54
and quite instantly became
a part of the school anthologies
02:59
at universities and colleges.
03:06
With the "Cover Girl" series,
03:08
I wanted to reimagine the magazine cover
03:10
with imagery totally unexpected,
yet profoundly reasonable.
03:14
The "Cover Girl" series
proposed a different way
03:21
the African can be represented
in a more complex manner.
03:26
Like "Cover Girl,"
the "Sartorial Anarchy" series
03:33
is made up of self-portraits.
03:38
It is an ongoing body of work,
started in 2010.
03:42
In each image, I married
disparate costumes
03:47
from widely diverse traditions,
countries and time frames.
03:53
And in mixing eras, cultures,
04:00
I was able to bring harmony, as it were,
04:04
to their similarly
irreconcilable differences.
04:08
These differences became a source
04:12
of inspired artistic celebration.
04:16
For example,
04:23
in "Sartorial Anarchy #4,"
04:26
I mixed a boater hat,
04:29
inspired by the traditional
Eton-Oxford College Boat Race,
04:32
with a green Afghan traditional coat
04:38
and an American Boy Scout shirt --
04:42
a culture clash that works.
04:46
In "Sartorial Anarchy #5,"
04:50
I wore a macaroni wig,
04:53
inspired by eighteenth-century
macaroni headgear from England.
04:56
This was paired with
a British Norfolk jacket,
05:02
Yoruba Nigerian trousers,
05:07
and, improbably, a South African
Zulu fighting stick.
05:11
All harmoniously coexist on one body.
05:17
And with "Sartorial Anarchy,"
I began to invest more
05:22
into the organization of my pictures.
05:27
I also began to investigate
the vast possibilities of color:
05:31
its emotional values,
05:38
psychological impulse,
05:40
poetic allure
05:43
and a boundless capacity beyond
the realm of meaning and logic.
05:45
Now, enter Nollywood.
05:52
In October of 2014,
05:55
I returned to Lagos, Nigeria,
after over three decades away
05:57
and took photographs
of 64 Nollywood personalities.
06:03
I captured a cross section
of the industry,
06:08
as well as the next generation
of rising stars.
06:13
Nollywood is the first time that you have
a school of African filmmakers
06:19
truly, truly, profoundly in charge
of telling African stories.
06:25
In their varied movies --
06:32
from romantic movies, horror films,
gangster movies to action movies --
06:34
one sees Nigerians portrayed
with many layers of complexities.
06:41
All the Nigerian, or "Naija," archetypes,
if you allow, are there --
06:47
from the divvers, the "Shakara,"
the coquette,
06:55
the gangsters, the rich,
the corrupt politicians,
07:00
the whore, the pimp --
07:05
all in their swagger.
07:07
And of course, you have the lowlifes
and the losers, too,
07:09
all vividly portrayed.
07:12
Nollywood is Africa's mirror
par excellence.
07:16
Typically, I direct all of my portraits,
07:21
from the way my subject
conducts his or her head,
07:25
the way the neck is tilted,
07:30
the expression of the fingers,
07:33
the gestures of the hands,
07:36
to the gaze
07:39
and overall bearing and countenance.
07:41
Let me describe
some of the photographs for you.
07:44
Genevieve Nnaji.
07:47
She is the reigning queen of Nollywood.
07:49
Here, I was quoting from the grand,
iconic African cultures
07:51
of the Nile Valley civilizations;
07:57
namely, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia,
08:00
so as to imbue her with a stately,
ironic, calm grandeur.
08:03
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett is
the grande dame of Nollywood.
08:11
Every aspect of her being
commands attention.
08:17
So I posed her with her back
to the audience.
08:23
Her face turned to meet us
with a redoubtable gaze.
08:27
She doesn't need to seek our approval.
08:34
She's all that.
08:38
Sadiq Daba.
08:40
There was an unspoken
authoritarian and imperial bearing
08:42
that Sadiq Daba exudes upon meeting him.
08:47
In this portrait, he simply sat
08:52
and allowed his massive,
massive Nigerian caftan
08:57
to signal his status.
09:03
Quite an accomplishment.
09:06
Belinda Effah.
09:09
Belinda Effah's portrait allowed me
to indulge my passion for color,
09:11
dressed in a long, fitted blue dress
that emphasizes her curves,
09:15
seated on an upholstered
green velvet bench.
09:22
I gamely employed the multicolored carpet
09:26
and a vibrant color,
09:32
in order to evoke the splendor
of the multicolored painted bunting bird.
09:34
Everything was designed to harmonize
the figure of Belinda within the frame.
09:41
Monalisa Chinda is, shall we say,
09:49
the epitome of the luxe
existence and lifestyle.
09:53
Her picture, or portrait,
pretty much speaks for itself.
09:57
Alexx Ekubo is a sharp study
10:02
in simplified elegance and dignity
10:07
and a harmony in blue and white, as well.
10:11
Enyinna Nwigwe
is a Nollywood matinee idol.
10:16
There is whiff of the rake about him,
10:20
and that gives him an enchanting edge.
10:25
That's what I felt when I designed
and organized the portrait.
10:29
Now, Nollywood is a new phase of Africa.
10:34
It is modern, post-modern,
10:39
meta-modern, bold
10:44
sexy, shrewd
10:47
and with a contagious
attitude worth catching.
10:50
As the finale of the project,
10:55
I assembled the Nollywood stars
10:58
into a group grand portrait
of 64 subjects,
11:01
called "The School of Nollywood,"
11:06
which was inspired
by Rafael's "School of Athens,"
11:10
that was done circa 1509.
11:15
It is at the Vatican.
11:20
This grand group portrait
11:22
is the exact same size
as Rafael's "School of Athens."
11:25
It measures roughly 27 feet in width
11:31
by six and a half feet in height.
11:36
Nollywood also exemplifies
a type of modernity
11:40
never before seen in Africa.
11:44
Think of it:
11:47
there has never been anything
so ubiquitous
11:48
with such iconic optics
11:53
to come out of Africa
11:56
since the Nile Valley civilizations
11:57
of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia.
12:02
Outside of Nollywood,
12:07
the image of Africa remains frozen
in the old "National Geographic" mode
12:09
and safari perspective.
12:15
But as Africans continue to step
and see themselves portrayed by Nollywood
12:18
in their varied
and fantastic complexities,
12:25
they will, in turn,
propagate and perpetuate
12:29
the positive image of themselves.
12:33
This is what Hollywood did
and continues to do for the West.
12:36
As shocking as this may be,
12:40
it is almost a taboo in the art world
12:43
to show Africans in a modern framework --
12:46
that is to say, as polished, dry-cleaned,
12:51
manicured, pedicured and coiffed.
12:55
(Applause)
12:59
Part of my job is to keep
beautifying Africa for the world,
13:04
one portrait at a time.
13:10
Thank you.
13:13
(Applause)
13:14

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About the speaker:

Iké Udé - Artist
The work of Nigerian-born Iké Udé explores a world of dualities: photographer/performance artist, artist/spectator, African/post-nationalist, mainstream/marginal, individual/everyman and fashion/art.

Why you should listen

Iké Udé's ongoing photographic self-portrait series, "Sartorial Anarchy," showa him dressed in varied costumes across geography and time. As a Nigerian-born, New York–based artist, conversant with the world of fashion and celebrity, Udé gives conceptual aspects of performance and representation a new vitality, melding his own theatrical selves and multiple personae with his art. Udé plays with the ambiguities of the marketplace and art world, particularly in his seminal art, culture and fashion magazine, aRUDE and recently his style blog, theCHIC INDEX.

Udé is the author of Beyond Decorum (MIT Press, 2000), which accompanied a traveling exhibition of his photography, and Style File: The World’s Most Elegantly Dressed (2008), a remarkable volume that profiles 55 arbiters of style, including Isabel and Ruben Toledo, Victoire de Castellane, André Leon Talley, Dita Von Teese, Ute Lemper, Lapo Elkann and many others. His work is in the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Art and in many private collections. The esteemed online auction house, Artsy, ranked him -- along with Rembrandt, van Gogh, Warhol -- among the top 10 "Masters of the Self-Portrait." He has made the coveted Vanity Fair magazine's International Best Dressed List in 2009, 2012 and 2015.

More profile about the speaker
Iké Udé | Speaker | TED.com