“I make pictures,” the multi-media artist Iké Udé tells me over the phone. “I don’t take pictures.”

Quick candid snapshots are not in Udé’s nature. In his richly colorful portraits, he agonizes over each element—from the curve of a leg to an eyelash. Arranging every component in harmony can take him as long as two months.

Staged photographs are not new to Udé. He’s a native of Lagos, Nigeria, born in 1964, and when he was growing up the taking of family photographs was a well-oiled routine. “They made photography an event,” he says of his parents. “Everyone showered, groomed, was well dressed and posed. It was momentous.” The family albums mounted up.

But as a young adult, Udé grew weary of Nigeria. Corruption was worsening and in 1981 he moved to New York. By the late 80s, Udé was painting—lively works in gouache and acrylic. But by the 90s, those family photographs came back to mind. He realized beauty could be a political intervention, and he began choosing African and African-American subjects of power.

Though the color palette of Udé’s work is strikingly modern—peppered with incendiary greens and reds—the old masters are a constant inspiration. “The Dutch Golden Age and the Renaissance,” he says, are his influences.

A series of his Nollywood portraits, which celebrate the vibrancy of Nigerian culture, was recently displayed at the Smithsonian. But Udé also shoots prominent friends—Pat Cleveland, Isabella Rossellini, Harold Koda—along with the occasional self-portrait.

When I ask him how he chooses his subjects, he says, “The in-between is more interesting. Beyoncé? Everyone knows Beyoncé. Michelle Obama? Everyone knows Michelle. But the in-between—the [former] C.E.O. of Xerox is an African-American woman; the dean of the business school at Wharton is an African-American woman, you know? And people don’t know that.”

Reflecting, he says, “It’s like music. They say that music is the organization of sound toward the beautiful. My pictures are the organization of visual elements toward the beautiful.” —Elena Clavarino

Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL