Distilling Narratives into Images: Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits

January 24, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 7 min read

This is adapted from the introduction to Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty by Iké Udé

coverFor the history of human existence, the eye has fed innovation, as much as other organs of the body, in the act of looking (say, at artwork or photography), or watching (say, live performance, theatre, or movies). In Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty, seasoned and renowned Nigerian photographer Iké Udé looks to fix our gaze, in the mutative act of looking, at the people who make up a burgeoning school of motion picture performance. Working in the tradition of documentary photography, Udé creates a compilation that strays from the tradition of this mode by its intervention in the crafting and organization of the photographed image. Udé performs the work of a movie director by making the actors and actresses sitters, thereby creating a mimesis of the process of production of the motion picture itself — the very subject of the compilation.

coverNollywood, now the second-largest film market in the world after Bollywood, here provides a formidable subject. African screen came about in a series of prodigious leaps. The origins of Nollywood lie in the 1971 dramatization of Things Fall Apart directed by new stars Adiela Onyedibia and Emma Eleanya. But perhaps one of the earliest pioneers was also an audacious one — Ola Balogun. He produced the first movies in the indigenous languages of Igbo and Yoruba. It was his Black Goddess (1978), shot in Nigeria and Brazil, that gained him life-long recognition and followers. These years were followed by a slew of home entertainment soaps and shows, alongside movies in Igbo and Yoruba. One of the movies produced during this era is perceived to have inspired a generation of directors and jumpstarted what is now the robust Nigerian movie industry of today. That movie was the highly successful Igbo-language movie Living In Bondage in 1992, about a man who suffers a complete breakdown in life after murdering his wife for cultic purposes he is convinced will make him rich.

The new era of what became the Nollywood as we have it today — Nigerian movies produced in the English language and aimed at a national audience — began with what I have chosen to label the “51 Iweka Road school.” That iconic building in the business district of Onitsha in Eastern Nigeria housed the early production and distribution stores of many of Nollywood’s earliest directors and industry-makers, people like Zeb EjiroChico EjiroAndy AmenechiTeco Benson, amongst others. These men gathered some of the actors of the indigenous language era — Kenneth OkoronkwoZack OrjiLiz BensonSam Loco EfeRita DominicNkem Owoh — and many others to produce quick, mostly low-quality direct-to-video cassette movies that came to be known as “Home Movies” and were intended especially for that purpose.

In talking about Nollywood, emphasis is often placed on the density and quality of cinematic output. But I will posit that the industry itself mimics the rooted tradition of the land (or lands) that now make up Nigeria. There were various Igbo stories that constituted scripts for night-time performances before audiences during celebrations or social enactments; often these took the form of masquerades like the story of, say, Ojadili, the great warrior who fought many evil spirits to get back his sacrificed “manhood.” In this way, Nollywood signifies a gathering of storytellers who have adopted the best medium of conveyance for their stories in an age of short attention spans and optimum pleasure. Many of the directors have spoken to this aim, even if unconsciously aware of it. In an interview on NPR, director Izu Ojukwu stated that they were mostly inspired to tell stories to a wide audience of viewers. The wide-access model of straight-to-VHS or DVD ensures that an immediate, wide audience is reached. In a couple of hours, movies “released” into the market at Iweka can reach remote Nigerian villages, and be seen the same day.

But beyond its efforts to capture the distinct identity of Nollywood stars, Nollywood Portraits also attempts to capture some of the unique characteristics of the industry, one being the extemporaneity of its output. The movie industry shares affinity with the defunct Aba Market Literature, which was the hallmark of literature in Eastern Nigeria in the early-1920s. The pamphlets produced were written by various writers who were often anonymous and the themes and subjects concerned matters of the day. If there was a big bank robbery somewhere in the town, the pamphlets offered a moralizing story about the fruits of contentment. This is a characteristic Nollywood has acquired. News pieces are converted when they are still fresh, within weeks sometimes, into movies. Subjects such as the April 2015 elections, the wave of kidnappings in the Eastern part of Nigeria, and even the Boko Haram scourge have led to the production of movies, among them the movie Boko Haram.

Nollywood has succeeded in covering a wide and variegated array of themes. Since, as producers and directors have repeatedly noted, the story is the core of the productions, and everything else is secondary or even negligible, the films have been much more audacious than those of Hollywood or the European film industry. Perhaps because of its nascence, the industry has yet to morph into distinct genre categorizations, and thus there is hardly any difference between a crime movie and a horror movie — all are simply Nollywood films, or Nigerian Home Videos. But the industry thrives in the production of culturally-themed films grounded in history and African — especially Igbo — traditions and folklore, like the epic Igodo (2002), and most recently Idemili (2015), a movie that portends a range of possibilities and prospects for the industry in its use of not just a well-written script but also some of the best CGI in the history of African cinema.

In the same way that the industry is extemporaneous and shows the anxiety of currency, it responds to global transformations. Although it has been slow to embrace the silver screen, Nollywood seems to be reaching toward this goal, with directors like Kunle Afolayon refusing to follow the DVD model. There have been success stories of movies having broken banks exclusively on cinema, interesting given that these theaters are situated mostly in the three commercial cities of Nigeria — Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Abuja. The South African cable supplier DSTV has for long owned TV channels dedicated exclusively to Nollywood movies. This outreach has enabled Nollywood to sweep across black Africa, from East to the far South, becoming the most subscribed film culture on the continent. In a 2016 essay in The New York Times, the journalist Norimitsu Orashi, who is partly responsible for the name “Nollywood,” which critics like the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka have found lacking in creativity, noted that the industry has become so far reaching that many Zimbabweans are starting to affect a Nigerian accent due to a preponderant exposure to Nollywood films. It is one of the largest employers in Nigeria, a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits seeks to tell the story of Nollywood to an international audience. Udé’s signature mark is a somewhat baroque style that, with its tableau framing, often present the portraits as dandyish. Stars are adorned in sometimes surreal attire, and treated to a flashy style of portraiture that becomes almost animated in a subversive criticism of media idolization of stardom and fame. His style aptly suits the rising “Hollywoodization” of the Nigerian movie industry which, having moved its capital from Iweka Road to Lagos, has transformed its practitioners into socialites and celebrities. Like Hollywood actors in the United States, Nollywood stars are high-society celebrities in Nigeria and across Africa, and the Lagos socialite scene in Ikoyi and many parts of the Lagos Mainland is the Nigerian version of Hollywood and greater Los Angeles. Like major actors who join politics, amongst them Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nollywood stars are often elected into political offices — Richard Mofe DamijoBob Manuel UdokwuHilda Dokubo, and others. This phenomenon becomes more pronounced as Nollywood gains increasing international recognition. In June 2013, there was a week dedicated to the showing of Nollywood movies in Paris known as Nollywoodweek Paris. Earlier than that, it had generated its own online video hub, Iroko TV, a rival to Netflix, but dedicated exclusively to Nollywood films.

Iké Udé begins Nollywood Portraits with a framing of the tribe gathered into a single portrait inspired by “The School of Athens” by Raphael. Like Raphael’s piece, Nollywood Portraits invokes a sort of Olympus-like convergence of actors and actresses. Udé then makes individual portraits of the actors and actresses against a pictorial narrative, pooling the documentary story of Nollywood into what Carolyn Forche would refer to as a “living archive.” Because our perception of these individuals is that of motion and action, our minds submit, upon every encounter with their photographs, to an animation that brings them into a living state. Udé himself makes a cameo in some of the images: standing, in the cover photograph, as a frontal shadow in the midst of the actors and actresses.

coverUdé’s compilation crawls into the traditional mode of documentary photography while also straying from the tradition of this mode. Many celebrities are represented here — many of them in high quality individual tableau portraits. Perhaps the most famous of them all, Geneivieve Nnaji, who recently starred in the mildly acclaimed movie Half of A Yellow Sun, is cast in an exquisite portrait composed of an otherworldly mix of demure colors that glow or dim by varying degrees. At the page end, to the left, is a wounded red, shadowed by a stunned tilt of bleached greenery that is separated, too, by several degrees of intensity. Just against this wall-like background stands the adroitly regaled Genevieve. She is dressed in a flowing gown that thickens as it descends toward the floor. On her shoulder where the gown begins, the blouse is translucent, but as it descends, it acquires more and more quilting until it pools on the floor. Genevieve’s posture is that of one focused on something the viewer cannot see but to which the viewer’s attention is demanded. In front of her is a chaise lounge, draped in glittering colors, on which sits what appears to be a bronze trophy — an allusion to her stardom even in the school of Nollywood.

As the Genevieve portrait reveals, the maximum effect of Udé’s characterization of these actors and actresses in the compilation is that of a eulogy. He seeks to esteem the stars, and to interrogate our perceptions of the industry as inferior to, say, Hollywood. All of the sitters are portrayed in a great mix of backdrop lighting that fades into the color of their attires. Thus, against the nuanced equivocation of background and setting, the expressions on the faces of the characters are foregrounded as if cast before a magnifying glass. In gazing keenly at the portraits, a dedicated consumer of Nollywood movies might easily parse the kerneled commentary in these portraits: that the portraits are snapshots of the signature movie roles they are best known for, or for which they commonly play. Belinda Effa, known for always playing a lover, is clad in a clinging blue gown, leering at the the camera. Jim Iyke, mostly reputed for his consistent roles as a charming philanderer and a consummate manipulator of women, is cast with an equivalent mien: a suited, bow-tied man in whose face is both an arrogant confidence of his pompous masculinity and an aroused sense of anticipation. In so doing, Udé seems to be fixing these artists into their filmic identities.

The images in this book will imprint in viewers’ and readers’ minds like permanent stills from movies. Udé resolves our gaze from watching the films to looking at the images. It’s no mere exhibit framed within the pages of a book, but a radical redirection of the eye from the interpretation — and appreciation — of motion picture to the still picture. By creating these portraitures, Udé is distilling narratives into images. We see in their stillness movement, in their postures gesticulations — we hear speech in their silence. The book itself becomes not just an educative work of art, but an extension of the narratives and intrigues that fill the films of Nollywood. And we, the readers, become an audience in the hall watching the unfolding of the riveting narrative of Nollywood, and being schooled and transformed by the experience.

is a contributing editor at The Millions. He was born in Nigeria. His debut novel, The Fishermen (Little, Brown), was published in 2015 and is being translated into 27 languages. The novel was the winner of the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Award for Fiction, the NAACP Image Awards for Debut Literary Work, the LA Times Art Seidenbaum award for first fiction among others, and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2015 and the Guardian First Book Award. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where he is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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