Ike Ude and Magatte Wade: How a Portrait Can Change the Way We See Africa

“Rise of the Guardians” is an animated movie about beloved character Jack Frost, who is responsible for bringing the joy of winter in which children can have snowball fights and make snow angels. Jack Frost’s deepest longing is to be seen by everyone because it’s lonely being invisible, everyone walking right through you and no one to talk to. Sure, everyone sees the breathtaking winter painting the town, delicate snowflakes kissing their noses, and plenty of snow for frosted angels, but no one sees Jack Frost; That is until one day Jamie a young boy, finally sees Jack Frost and says his name with disbelief in his voice and wonder in his eyes. Jack Frost is so overwhelmed with joy that he keeps screaming in between back flips, “He sees me! He sees me! He said my name”!

I had the privilege of recently attending the unveiling of Magatte Wade’s portrait, done by renowned Nigerian artist Ike Ude. When he speaks of his friend Magatte, he sounds just like Jack Frost that day Jamie finally saw him. He recounts the first time they met, in Arusha for Ted Global 2017 where Magatte told governments to get out of the way of people’s pursuit of happiness, and Ike told the world to reframe the way they see Africans’ pursuit of their happiness. They were both to be speakers at the conference though they didn’t know each other prior. “Most people at the conference didn’t really talk to me”, he recalls. “They found me odd I know, with my hair and colorful clothes, and at the cafeteria I was mostly drinking tea and eating a few vegetables. It was only after my talk which received a standing ovation, that they began to warm up to me. But not Magatte; the moment she saw me she opened her arms to me without pretense. She was so warm and kind. She kept telling me, I like your style! Honestly, she sees me! She really sees me”.

When you meet Magatte, she gives you these hugs that feel like grandma’s soul food

Ike talks about Magatte almost like a whimsical creature you’d only read about in mythology or fairytales. Except she wouldn’t be a damsel in distress stuck in a tower, brushing her hair in despair. She’d be a powerful woman who, indignant of the injustice around her, would ride in town like a knight in shining armor, and…well, create jobs for the poor and change laws in the kingdom to make a more favorable environment for local merchants. Sure that doesn’t sound as cool as slaying an imaginary dragon, but Magatte is all about sustainable solutions and storylines in which people are heroes of their own stories. Magatte, as Ike describes her, “is a woman with passion, a passion with fierceness and empathy for everyone. She is so strong and determined”.

Make no mistake however, this admiration of Magatte is mirrored. If you notice in the clip above when Jamie sees Jack Frost, there is mutual awe of one of another, a reciprocated delight in seeing and being seen, in bearing witness to each other’s existence. Magatte talks about her friend Ike with the deepest respect for his vision, his work, and ultimately the kind of person he is. “He is a no nonsense guy, who is dedicated to transforming the way people view Africa. He is so intentional with his work, when we were working on the portrait he was meticulous about everything including how to place my hands and how to hold my shoulders. When you walk into his studio, he has all those odd pieces you see in his portraits, including that big red wig you saw in that one portrait. I’m telling you, he’s quite the character”.

Magatte’s description of Ike might sound like an exaggeration, until I met him at the unveiling of the portrait he made for her. He cannot be lost in a crowd, with his big afro parted in the middle, and his polka dot suit, and unfiltered speech. He is unfiltered and speaks with such ease, yet every word feels carefully placed with intention. He knows the misrepresentation of Africa was a deliberate process, and it is as if each word of his, in an incantation to undo the curse that has befallen our homeland. He does everything with intention, much like the way he makes his portraits. When asked about his thought process for his portrait of Magatte, he listed three particular inspirations: Renaissance art with its female subject softly lounging on expensive drapes, the upright torso reminiscent of the Sphinx of Egypt, and the hair piece made of leaves, is an ode to Clio the Greek muse of History.

“He’s a meticulous man”, Magatte says in half amusement, half admiration, “look! He even made a playlist for the evening of the unveiling can you believe it”? Ike Ude sure did make a playlist for the unveiling, because he intended to create an experience in which all attendees are exalted. Exalted. That is the exact word he used when I asked his goal for the night, and more importantly for his portraits series. Exalted. Because he knows that when writing or speaking about Africa, reverence isn’t always the goal. Recalling the work of late activist Binyavanga Wainaina “How to write about Africa”, he says that reverence is often only reserved for the animals of the Serengeti. Mufasa is written as a majestic lion, while Africans are often written as war lords or children with flies on their face. So it was intentional, the friendship/partnership of Magatte and Ike, the making of her portrait, its unveiling in a beautiful Manhattan apartment, soundtracked by the warm voices of Cesaria Evora and Nina Simone. It was one of the multiple ways both of them seek to reclaim, reshape, and take back agency over the portrayal of the motherland. To exalt our people, return to the homeland a reverence often only reserved to the prideland of Simba. It is a rejection of the Dark Continent portrayal and a reclaiming of its majesty. “A post-safari Africa; a post-National Geographic Africa; a post-colonial Africa”, as Ike would say.

Sure, both Ike and Magatte run in circles with people most would only dream of meeting, but they are both incredibly grounded in their mission to participate in the rise and transformation of the continent. As you read this, Magatte has already returned to her home and is preparing for one of her multiple trips to her native Senegal. She will be checking on her many projects which while they span across multiple industries, all have a single goal: To create jobs and eradicate poverty. Ike on his end, is undaunted by the colossal task of reframing the story of Africa. In fact, he welcomes the pushback, for he believes that is how determination is forged. They both know this shared fierceness is what makes Magatte and him such great friends, a force to be reckoned with.

It was truly a delight to witness the unveiling of Magatte Wade’s portrait. To see her in a larger than life display, done by a larger than life artist like Ike Ude. To be in both their presence, to see them both, was to see myself too, to bear witness to an awakened majesty within. They both looked so bold, grand, regal, determined and powerful. I couldn’t help but think to myself,

“They see me. They see me”!

Not the African me that the West has often portrayed as helpless and hopeless. but the African me that is empowered and has the agency of its own destiny.

They see me. They see us.

Note: Out of Respect to Both Magatte and Ike, I didn’t share a picture of the portrait until they are ready to reveal to the public.

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How can I live in a way that makes room for you too? I write for our healing, our love, our redemption. Read me here too==>https://dearbodyproject.com/

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Isabelle dany masado

How can I live in a way that makes room for you too? I write for our healing, our love, our redemption. Read me here too==>https://dearbodyproject.com/