This post may be of dubious intellectual value, but it answers a question that has confronted me every day I walk to Allen junction bus stop: Why do we see everywhere in Lagos, stacked along the roadside, portraits of some of Nollywood’s most notable celebrities? The portraits appear hand-painted, alongside portraits of other world-renown figures like Wole Soyinka, President Obama, and Oprah. They are clearly part of the small trades economy that roots itself in the most highly trafficked spots of Lagos. To me, it seemed strange, though not impossible, that Nollywood fans would go as far as buying portraits of their favorite actors and actresses.
I stopped today and inquired at one of these impromptu galleries. Why Nollywood actors, and why set cheek by jowl with Soyinka and Obama? As one of the artists, Ayo Phillips, explained to me, the portraits themselves are not for sale. They act as a measure of the artist’s skill. These are the most recognizable faces in Lagos. Nigeria’s iconic personalities alongside other global icons. One can immediately discern the artist’s skill by how closely they capture the image of the actor.
It has become something of a cliche to commend Nollywood for telling Nigerian stories for Nigerian audiences. Less attention is given to the images of Nollywood, probably because the production values stand in contrast to other types of African cinema, especially art cinema. But we might just as well think of how the star system in Nollywood is driven by image, the iconic recognition of a face, a style, a persona. The signature red cap and beard framing Peter Edochie’s face. Funke Akindele’s diamond earrings and curls from her much-loved role as Jenifa. We are dealing with a different kind of image, but its mobility and diffusion throughout Lagos is undeniable. Posters for new releases wheat-pasted on walls, Glo Ambassador’s on billboards peering out over Ikorodu Road, and roadside portraits are just a few examples of Nollywood’s image circulating through the city.
Pictured above is Funke Akindele, Peter Edochie, Odunlade Adekola, 2Face Idibia, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, and Obama is peaking out over the left. Please, help me identify anyone I’ve missed.