Olu Oguibe's
Guest of the Month

    Excerpts from

    'The Regarded Self; 
    An Essay by
    Iké Udé

    One can form ideas about oneself, but these ideas may be in direct opposition to other people's ideas of the person in question. Concurrently, an idea such as "self-love" is read as anti-social, although each one of us is committed, in one way or another, in the love of the self. Thus, courage required in negotiating "self-love" (narcissism?), together with the accepted act of appearing not to care about oneself (modesty) engender an ambivalence towards what I shall call "The Regarded Self." Who owns the self? The public or the self? If it's true that the self is public property when in a public space, might it not be worthy of our consideration to think of the self as foremost, private?

    For the redeemed narcissist, the mirror is not a mere site at which to perform such base functions as decoration and adornment. Rather, the mirror serves as a location that allows "The Regarded Self" a sacred and intense solitude by which it may renegotiate and disclose its superior self at all cost. The "narcissist" is always a hero exactly because he typifies the opposite of the heroic appearance. To locate and resolve the weakness of the ego is a mark of strength and shows a profound regard for the self. The best hunt or bargain for love is not outside but within and around the self. The mirror is only one side of the coin.

    Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Fall/Winter, 1995

    Born in Nigeria and resident in New York, Udé has exhibited widely in Ameica and Europe since the 1980s. He is the publisher of aRude magazine in New York.

Iké Udé, artist and publisher
   Cover Girl

    In 1994 New York artist Iké Udé exhibited a kiosk of magazine covers at Exit Art in New York. Sitting in his installed environment, Udé simulated a news agent’s with racks and a wallfull of magazine displays. In addition to the simulacral nature of this environment, one other thing was peculiar with Udé’s magazines; on most of the covers there was one central image, that of the artist himself. There was Vogue and Elle and Cosmopolitan and even Town and Country, and on most of these the artist consciously imposed his face; carefully groomed and made-up, pose meticulously chosen, studio photograph shot with professional care and the result retouched where and as necessary with the intent to produce the perfect object of desire. In Cover Girl Udé moved from consumer to become the consumed, and on each cover he seemed to say: how d’ya like me now?

    The magazine cover is a stage. In the heady Eighties and Nineties with their narcissistic obsession with the body, the magazine cover has taken the place of the classical nude, and became the most powerful arena for the continual reformulation of the perfect human. In this pursuit the graphic designer and cover photographer, under the keen supervision of the editor assumes the responsibility to define the look of the millennial era. Coupling disparate bodies to faces, unrelated parts one to another, the cover artist is thus empowered to determine the visual parameters of the projected self in our time. In a mass-literate age the magazine cover is the ultimate hall of fame, and the cover figure is the ultimate icon after whom, often, a whole generation is driven to model itself. We recall Dr. Hook pleading from a different if not so distant age: I wanna see my face on the cover of the Rolling Stone. To make the cover is to make it; for, in our time, the medium is no longer the message. The cover is the message.

    But the magazine cover is more than the palace of seduction where a consumer society manipulates itself and maneuvers the unwary and the weak into the slippery terrain of the virtual and the simulacral. It is more than the easel on which an affluent society celebrates its fantasies of itself and enthrones narcissism as the cult of the end of civilization. It is more than the magic screen before which we take signs for wonders. Much more than these, the magazine cover is a coliseum of popular cultural representation and definition, where otherwise occasionally subtle predilections and prejudices are symptomized and recycled. From the 1876 cover cartoon of Harper’s Weekly (A Journal of Civilization) in which the Negro and the Irish were equated as savages, to Time magazine’s cover of a darkened O. J. Simpson in 1994, the magazine cover has remained a theater not only for the projection of specific cultural and ideological stereotypes, but also for their propagation and reinforcement. In this vein, the magazine cover is not only the ultimate hall of fame: it is, also, quite potentially, the ultimate hall of shame. To be celebrated on the cover, is to be celebrated indeed, and to be denigrated, is to be doubly so. To stand for The Fall here, is to be damned forever.

    Taking their cue from the surface, many have read plain narcissism into Iké Udé’s Cover Girl, and having done so quite correctly noted that the insertion of the artist’s image into the guarded spaces of the media, especially the magazine cover, is neither novel nor particularly earth-moving. Such interpretation, though, whether driven by the growing visual illiteracy that ironically characterizes our image-saturated times, or by the increasing insensitivity accompanying our ostentatious rebound from political correctness, misses the crucial cultural intervention Cover Girl makes; first in its election of the magazine cover as a far-from-innocent arena of cultural politics, and second in its unrelenting interrogation of this site and its politics.

    As a political space the cover is a contested territory, a cultural battlefield where, again and again, power manifests itself most crudely and viciously; selecting, excluding, institutionalizing, dehumanizing, imposing, and perpetually erasing. For instance, it is not often enough that the question resurfaces: in this ultimate hall of fame and beauty, erected, supposedly, for the patronage of all and sundry, where, pray, are the faces of all those who have no ancestry in Europe? Where is the Negro, the Eskimo, the Australian Aboriginal who has not made the narrow entry by virtue of an incidental injection of Caucasian blood? Where is the youth without the aquiline nose? And on those rare occasions when these ‘Others’ make their entry, on what conditions are they granted access? What, as James Baldwin would put it, is the price of the ticket?

    It is these questions, rather than the self-indulgent device of automakeover, that Udé brings into the increasingly sanitized spaces of the visual arts in Cover Girl. ‘The magazine cover is by design representational,’ notes the artist, a device possessed of a mode of ‘transgressive omnipotence (that) decisively weighs on our individual and collective unconscious.’ In fulfilling that ultimate essence of the Critique which is to bring the object into crisis, therefore, Udé subjects the magazine cover and the institutions and personages that it emblematizes to rigorous questioning. With each cover, he takes on a plethora of issues. On the covers of Vogue, Glamour, Bazaar and GQ, for instance, Udé challenges the trade argument that the Black face does not sell (an argument industry insiders have indeed questioned) by inserting and locating himself and his friends on them. But beyond this transgressive act meant to address a perennial lopsidedness in the culture of cover politics, he indeed reinforces his strategies by engaging broader questions of representation.

    On the Vogue a banner reads: ‘Hysteria Over the Death of the Nobel Savage’, an obvious lead from the cover of the Town and Country where Udé announces: ‘The Nobel Savage is Dead.’ The Nobel Savage is, of course, a familiar figure, emblem of the Other’s eternal location between savagery and civility. And the Nobel Savage is, quite ironically, a priceless figure, since in his existence is invested the assured safety of a claim to culture and civilization. To remove the Nobel Savage is to undermine the exclusivity of civility, and to kill this admirable figure, is to undermine an entire eschatology upon which hinges not only the borders of difference and thus of hierarchical supremacy, but even more so the very soul of liberal cultural ideology. Which is why the very idea itself stirs hysteria among those for whom his preservation is of utmost import. To kill the Nobel Savage is to destroy a world view, and quite materially, to destroy an industry which this world view has spurned and sustained, that industry which Jamaica Kincaid trounces in A Small Place. To locate such a heinous idea in the spaces that Udé ventures to, is blasphemy.

    Leading on from the above, Udé moves us to the cover of his Condé Nast Traveler where, rather than the alluring, exotic tropical or pacific paradise we are used to, he places the symbol of that most epic and historical of all travels, the hull of the slave ship. The background is red; it is the heat of the tropical afternoon, the scarlet of the tropical sun as it goes down in the evening, setting the traveler loose on the sidestreets of his host city. But even more so, it is the blood of the Middle Passage, above which the artist places the motto of the New World: In God We Trust. This is the Condé Nast Traveler Udé presents to us, the underbelly of the cruise vessel, the flipside of History.

    On Parents Udé wedges into conventional concerns over incest and children’s safety an equally portentous image with a historical query: the white child and her black nanny, the lady who raised white America. In presenting Aunt Jemimah and the questions her figure places on the conscience of America, Udé replaces the archetypal fat, black, drawling mophead of pre-civil rights American popular imagination with the nanny in jeans, out on the country sidewalk with her ward in a pram, very much present even if her face is still hidden. On every cover, at every stage, Udé introduces a name that would not be there, a discourse that would otherwise never surface. What we see, therefore, is not an agenda of self-promotion. Udé’s face reveals itself as generis, as metonym, as the figure of the evaded, the resist from the erased. The questions he raises through his chosen device remind us that, in many ways, our society has hardly changed from that which produced the Harper’s cover of 9 December, 1876. And the message comes at the discerning with such power it leaves a persistent pounding in the brain.

    Conceptual art is in crisis, populated by the garbage of charlatans and magicians that threateningly remind us of the accession of junk food. At the end of the 20th century, concept itself has become a junk word, brought to shame and abused by many who hardly know its meaning or worth. It has come to stand for tired art, quick-fixes, the shock of the new, the derriere-garde. Yet, now and again we run into that little, dark corner where surprise hides its face. We find the artist who, at the risk of misunderstanding in an age of cynicism, strives to preserve in the idea its original meaning: the confluence of thought, notion, inspiration and conception, the intermixture of conviction and goal, rather than a passage for the vacuous and the mediocre. It is in this niche that we find Udé and his Cover Girl.

    Text © Olu Oguibe 1995      Guest Page©Olu Oguibe,1997

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