Nigerian Artist Continues A Family Tradition With 'Sartorial Anarchy' In Lagos, Iké Udé's family engaged in a West African tradition: photographing people wearing new clothes. Clothing and portraiture are still at the center of the New York-based photographer's work.
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Nigerian Artist Continues A Family Tradition With 'Sartorial Anarchy'

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Nigerian Artist Continues A Family Tradition With 'Sartorial Anarchy'

Nigerian Artist Continues A Family Tradition With 'Sartorial Anarchy'

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Robert Duncan, the aviation tycoon, hosted a party at his home this week in Lincoln, Neb. And at that event, two photographic portraits were unveiled of Mr. Duncan and his wife. They were whimsically attired in colorful dress from around the world. Their photographer is Ike Ude, born in Lagos, now based in New York. For the seams, an occasional series about fashion as culture, Jacki Lyden offers this portrait of the portrait maker.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Robert Duncan is a man who gets around. He owns Duncan Aviation, the world's largest and family-owned private jet refurbishing service. He loves and collects art, and he loves clothes. He even quotes Coco Chanel in his email signature - in order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different. Duncan explains why he commissioned two portraits by this particular artist.

ROBERT DUNCAN: He develops a fantasy. And he uses all these beautiful costumes and colors and props to convey this fantasy. And that drew me in right away. I've collected unusual clothes and unusual shoes and hats for years. And I pride myself on being different in the way I dress. And this is the ultimate in different dress.

LYDEN: The two portrais Ike Ude made for the Duncans are bright and color-saturated. Robert Duncan wears a Japanese kimono, Japanese fabric, a black striped hat with a blue pompom. His wife, Karen, wears a red feather boa or one of her many hats. One of the portraits shows three different versions of the Duncans in different outfits each time. It's 6.5 feet by 10. That happens to be the same size as Seurat's "A Sunday On La Grande Jatte" - again, Robert Duncan.

DUNCAN: Each of those costumes, we were photographed separately - just the two of us, just on a pair of chairs. The carpet was not there. It was in another room. So all of this he brought together in his process. He went home with the raw photos and built the art piece.


LYDEN: Back at the party, Wally Mason mingled with the guests. He's the director of the Sheldon Museum of Art there, and introduced the Duncans to Ike Ude. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly states that Sheldon Museum of Art Director Wally Mason introduced the Duncans to Ike Ude. In fact, they were introduced by Mason's predecessor.]

WALLY MASON: He's really just taking fragments of life, assembled them in such a way that we see them in new light. And that's happened from the beginning of time. That's what art does.

LYDEN: When Ike Ude was a boy growing up in Lagos, going to British schools and dreaming of a life abroad in a place like New York, his family engaged in a tradition in West Africa - the photographing of people wearing new clothes.

IKE UDE: You have some new clothes made by your family tailor and you say, oh, why not? Let's call him over and do a group photograph for us. You know, it was entertainment really, yeah.

LYDEN: And entertainment that set the stage for the rest of his life. In New York, he became a club kid and invented his own theories of dress, combining elements from across history. Ike Ude is most interested in portraits, specifically self-portraiture. Two years ago, he showed his work at a major gallery in New York.

UDE: I was thinking about engaging in a global grand tour, but through men's clothings.

LYDEN: These photographic self-portraits are a cross between court paintings and bright still-lifes in which Ude is the focus. In one large picture, he wears a 19th-century men's jacket and a Medusa-like wig. In another, he's Photoshopped himself to have silvery skin, like an alien's, and wears a zeppelin-shaped helmet.

UDE: At first glance, it appears as though it is metallic and hard, but it isn't. It's done in a manner that it absorbs blows or any arrows shot at it.

LYDEN: It's actually a 19th-century Uzbek helmet made of tiny silver discs. The 47-year-old artist says that this antique helmet should remind us that fashion should not dictate to us, that all fashion has its moment in time and that time will pass. His originality has landed him on Vanity Fair's International Best-Dressed List. The list's editor, Amy Fine Collins, explains how and why she chose him for the honor.

AMY FINE COLLINS: Ike came to be on our International Best-Dressed List in the originals category. It's sort of outside the norm of classic, chic or elegance. And it's reserved for people who are able to put themselves together in a way that is characteristic only of themselves; that's idiosyncratic, but reaches some degree of art.

LYDEN: She especially respects how he deploys his raw materials.

COLLINS: His sources range from designer brand names to thrift shop, second-hand, third-hand, cast-off odds and ends that he has a great eye for discovering.

LYDEN: Monica Miller is a cultural historian at Barnard College. For 15 years, she's studied and written about Ike Ude's work and says he fits into the sartorial tradition of a dandy.

MONICA MILLER: Dandies wear fancy clothing, sometimes in places where that's not appropriate. Dandies wear clothing that seems feminine or feminized when that might not be appropriate. Dandies might not be of a high social class, but by using clothing and accessories and a certain kind of style, make the lines between certain things like race, class, gender, sexuality, blur those lines. It's about using clothing and dress to signal other possibilities and to actually mess with people's expectations.

LYDEN: He's titled his ongoing pictorial series "Sartorial Anarchy" because he doesn't like being dictated to.

UDE: You know, I don't like fashion particularly - fashion as in commercial fashion, like the brand names and designers. What my interest regarding fashion/costumes, it's in the how we use it and the what we use it for and when we use it.

LYDEN: Cultural historian Monica Miller explains Ike Ude's relevance.

MILLER: What's important is not the labels; what is important is the combinations. It's something that kind of, like, mash-up, mix-up, remix of clothing styles as well as eras that bring history in.

LYDEN: For this modern-day dandy, the past plays an almost sacred role in his art.

UDE: So if we have more sympathy in the fact that life is very ephemeral, we sympathize with people that came before because we, too, will become part of the past. The present will become the past, too.

LYDEN: For Ike Ude, the present turns to the future as well. He's preparing his next show - a series of portraits he's made of the rising talent of Nollywood, Nigeria's booming film industry. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

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