WHEN ART MEETS LIFE
Boisterous Nike Davies –Okundaye, fondly referred to as Mummy Nike, needs little or no introduction. She is Nigeria’s foremost Batik and Adire designer, owner and chief curator at Nike Art Gallery and the CEO of Nike Arts and Cultural Centre, a centre where budding artists get free training in many artistic skills.
Okundaye spent her adolescent years in Osogbo, one of Nigeria’s major Centre’s for Art and culture, where she learnt indigo dying and Adire production from the famous Osogbo Art School. With this training, she discovered a passion for textile designs in the Adire and batiks and became exceptional.
From her first exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Lagos in 1968, Nike has become one of the prominent names on the art scene internationally and locally.
Funke Babs-Kufeji speaks to the doyen of Arts and Culture, who tells her about turning 70 and her journey thus far.
Turning 70 in this day and age is such a big deal, and we celebrate you for that. How do you feel at 70?
I am filled with joy. I never knew I would get to celebrate 70 years on earth, so this has been a very memorable year and birthday for me. I have been celebrating other birthdays, but this year has been very special for me.
First, a birthday celebration was thrown in my honour by Diana Chen, who I also call Adunni, the Chairman of CIG Motors authorised distributor of GAC Motor in Africa in conjunction with the Lagos state government. I was celebrated in a very big way and was given the Arts Iconia Awards in recognition of my contribution to the arts and culture in Nigeria. I had not just one, but two governors attend that event, and I was happy to have been given such a huge honour. I thank Adunni Diana Chen for celebrating me.
I remember the celebration like yesterday because I was in attendance. What was the most memorable part of that day for you?
What was most memorable for me was the car I was gifted. It is the first time in my life that I am getting this kind of gift; despite my hard work, I didn’t know I will see someone who could gift me a car. The Governor and Diana gave me a car worth more than 35million naira. When will I have saved such an amount of money? We practically live on our daily earnings now, especially with the covid-19 pandemic. It was a surprise for me. I never saw it coming. I couldn’t believe it. I was very happy and speechless.
I also never thought I would meet the Lagos Governor. I am not a politician or anything of that sort; I do whatever I can to help. Lagos, I will say, is “Ilú Ajè” (the land of opportunity). Anyone who is hardworking will make it in Lagos; that is why I moved to Lagos. I was based in Osogbo before, but because people didn’t visit Osobgo to patronise us back in the ’70s, then I moved to Lagos. Now Lagos has honoured and celebrated me, and I’m grateful.
I know you opened your first gallery in 1983 in Osogbo, and you trained girls for free on Batik and Adire. Is that still in existence?
My first Art shop in Osogbo was in 1967, and that was in my bedroom. I moved to Osogbo when I was six after my mother died to live with my mother’s sister, an adire maker married to a man with 16 wives. We were three living inside her room, and that was where our gallery was too. I will call that my African shop No 1.
Osogbo was and still is a place where people come to worship the Osun, and if you believe in the Osun, whatever you want, you will get. After being in Osogbo for a while and learning from my mother’s sister the Art of adire making, I met Susan Wenger, a white woman who married a Nigerian and told her I want to be like her. She asked what my skill was, and I told her Adire. When she took a look at my work, she said I was already a professional. She advised that I focus on my craft and work hard that things will work out for me.
I left for the USA in 1974, chosen by the American government. It was my first breakthrough. I was to teach Aso-oke weaving women’s loom. In class, I had 48 men and two women. I was surprised to know that the men took so much interest in learning the women’s aso-oke loom, so I asked further why men were interested in the women loom, and they said, “this is America, what a woman can do a man can do and vice versa”. So that was when I decided that when I returned to Nigeria, I would learn the men loom and teach it to other women in my centre since it was a faster craft to learn.
Your Nike Art and culture centre in Osogbo used to be for only girls. Is this still the case, and why?
I first opened it for girls until I was threatened to be closed down. I was told I couldn’t bring my American feminism back to Nigeria, especially not Osogbo. So, I was made to open my doors to men as well. When it was for only women, it was called Cooperative, but I was advised to name the centre after myself; that was how the name Nike’s centre for Art and Culture came along. When it was for only girls, I was arrested or harassed by the police every other day via some disgruntled men saying that once the women learn the craft, they won’t give money to their husbands anymore. These were women who were 3rd or 4th wives. Some were even 7th wives to a man. I was teaching them the adire and Aso Oke craft and advising them to invest their money rather than give it all to their husbands, so the husbands concluded I was teaching American Feminism.
I went into film production when sales were slow in Osogbo. We produced a movie called Ayaba, where I featured as the Ayaba, and still, I was arrested because, according to them, I was delving into men’s trade. Back then, I always thought about other means of income, and that’s when I started running workshops on wood carving. I even allowed my daughter to join. All the crafts and trades that women were not allowed to do, I started going into them. When I used my daughter on wood carving, they said she must worship Ogun. At the end of the day, the training became for both men and women and even children. After a while, children from different schools will come to the Art shop in Osogbo for internships for about three months, which made me write to schools encouraging them to send in their students to learn about textile, adire, carving, etc.
So, are you saying Osogbo Arts and Culture Centre has proper facilities to accommodate those who come?
I started with using my house to provide accommodation/feeding and material for them for free, and to date, it remains free. I have now built a hostel to be able to accommodate more students.
How are you able to sustain the centre at a certain basic standard since training is free?
I don’t get free funds. I get funds from my lectures abroad. I divide any money I get from my lectures into three (3) one for myself, one for my family, and one for my centre. Now that I have a gallery, anyone that gives me their Artwork to sell, if I sell, I take 10%, which I also divide into 3. I run the centre in Osogbo with young students and for young students, which help to keep spending low. The one in Abuja is for job seekers. When they are stranded and have nothing to do, they go to my centre. When El-Rufai was Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, I invited him to the centre because he is an art lover, and he was very impressed. This made him tar the road to the centre and gallery to make it more accessible. He encouraged me to do everything I could to help build the youths, and then we decided to teach them how to recycle. We taught and still teach them how to use scraps to make Art. All the works previously taught are still in the Abuja centre and gallery. Then we went a step further; we took the Osogbo concept and brought it to Lagos. The gallery in Kogi was opened after opening one in Abuja, which attracts ambassadors to visit. There are similarities between Ogidi in Kogi and the Ogidi Anambra culture. The food, the red cap etc.
I know you don’t have any formal education. Everything learnt was self-taught; how were you coping and communicating when you first went abroad to teach in schools like Harvard?
The first time was in May 1974, when I went to teach. I kept asking for an interpreter, but they encouraged me to say whatever I wanted to say. When I say, ‘signature my tribe’, and they asked what I meant, I will tell them my work is my signature; the Adire is called Alaworan, and when they further asked what ‘alaworan’ meant, I told them it meant Adire. Eventually, after a while of us going back and forth on language barriers, I was given an interpreter. It was my interpreter after many lessons that taught me how to speak America English. You see, I only read up to primary 6, and as soon as I left primary school, I became a babysitter with an Indian woman. This was in 1966. She taught me little English and how to write and say my name in English. It was initially difficult, but I gradually learnt, and whenever I have white people visit Osogbo, I communicate with them through the pictures of my works.
In 1983 I decided to take up the responsibility to explain my work to visitors without the help of an interpreter in LA, I was working for 10hrs daily, and I had many people come around asking me questions about my work. I will try my best to communicate in English, and sometimes I just let them watch as I work.
Tell us about your experience at Harvard University and how you got into the school as a teacher?
I met a lady Susan Bell in 1979 when I took African Study. When I joined the study group, we travelled to different states to teach. Which helped Every year, professors will come to the Africa Study class and write books and lecture on everything African, and that was where I met Susan Bell. she said she would love to bring me to Harvard for the Cultural week and that if it works out, she will bring me more often. The first year they invited a UN Ambassador and the Mayor who knew me back then in Osogbo in 1975, Roland Abiodun and myself to lecture. Roland lectured on texture while I lectured on Adire. All the students would assemble in the hall, and I will play my video on the processes of making Adire; how we remove cassava from the ground, pounding and turning it into Adire. After showing them the stages of making Adire, I will then ask them if they have any questions. They always laughed whenever I spoke English, but they understood that English wasn’t my language and seemed eager to hear more from me. This was how I got to the point that I will be sent to different universities to teach every February. I have been to Columbus, Chicago, Saint Paul, New Halley, Detroit etc. You name it. I have been to all the 50 states, I have been to all the Universities, libraries, museums to teach Art. But there is a place I don’t like much, which is Hawaii, it’s so cold. When I went there, my ears nearly froze. When I went there, I was a single mother looking for money to pay my son’s school fees, so I had to do lots of lectures to make sure to get money which made me stay there very long. In a year, I lecture more than ten universities.
Let’s talk about Arts. What would you say has been your most successful craft to date?
The craft that has given me the most success is textile. Even though I have done batik, also called Vegetable dye, I would say textile because all my works are in different Museums in Britain, Germany, Canada etc. It has made me what I am today, and that is what I lecture on. My boss Prof Wole Soyinka has been taking my signature geles on tour. When I realised it would bring in money, I jumped on it. “Gele mì gájú ti èlo” started when Prof Soyinka took a liking to my geles and said we should do a show on it was a success. That is how the Gele project was birthed.
Interesting. Tell me more about your gele?
The gele idea came up one day when an Obioma tailor was passing by. I called him and gave him the concept of what I had visualised, and after much back and forth and adjusting here and there; my signature gele was born. When I first wore it, my daughter made fun of me, and I told her she would also wear it someday. I started wearing them everywhere, and every time I went out, people complimented my gele.
I put up a fashion show with my gele, and Prof Soyinka was impressed; he complimented my new style and called it “gele gala”. He took me to Napoli and Panama in Italy, where we got the chance to put the gele on the Mayor’s head. You know our culture is valued internationally. In Panama, I put the head-tie on more than 100 white people. So, when the Meristem campaign came and asked, I was asked if I could make the biggest head tie; that was when I took up the challenge. The gele was 42meters high while the first I ever did was 32m. That is how I started with my gele business and lecture.
During the Eko at 50 events, the professor, Wole Soyinka, brought 200 young children to wear the gele, and you needed to see the joy on their faces when they put it on.
What accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
The gallery. This Nike Art Gallery here in Lekki. The day I opened this gallery was the happiest day of my life.
Also, in 1976 when I travelled to America, I was the only female among nine men who travelled to go and teach the aso-oke loom because the American Government insisted, they must include a female in the group. When we got to New York, we found some of my work being sold at the craft shop at the Museum in New York. A lady I met here took them to the museum, and they were being sold for a dollar. I opened this gallery in 2000, it took me two years to build it, and I planned to accommodate as many artists as possible. I wanted all Artists voices to be heard, and I wanted their works to speak for them hence why I curate arts from so many artists. I wanted the Nike Art Gallery to be a place people visit and find at least ten or over 10 Artist voices being heard.
How do you curate your Artwork, is there something special you look out for before you exhibit an artist’s work in the gallery?
No! I have some people on my board who help with the selection. First, we ask for pictures, and if we like what we see, we put them in the gallery. I try to make sure we have female artists exhibit their works because the industry is already male dominated. Also, every year in March, we organise exhibitions for female artists to make sure their voices are heard. The last presentation for women was held in my daughter’s gallery. Her gallery is much smaller and different, but it was ideal for the exhibition.
What is it that you have that makes you unique and makes people more curious to know you better?
People are always surprised that a woman who didn’t go to school can achieve this much. I am also not shy when communicating, so I think my openness has made people see that I have nothing to hide. If I see a small girl who I know is creative, I will beg her to train me even when learning English.
Can you compare the Nigeria Art industry to its counterparts abroad?
African Art has come of age, and it has become a huge source of income for people. The first female artist, Njideka, under the age of 50, has been able to sell one Artwork for 3.4m dollars (1.6billion naira) and is from Nigeria. This is an outstanding achievement for Nigeria and Africa, and this happens to be the first time an African artist will sell art worth that amount. So, Africa Art will be everywhere, and this is the right time to tap into it.
What do you think makes Africa Arts unique to other Arts?
I would say the way we create. Nigerians are very talented in every aspect. We are very hardworking. Even when we go overseas, we excel. The richness of our culture makes us unique.
Do you have any words for up-and-coming artists?
My advice for the young upcoming artist is to work hard and focus, hold on to their hope, and always think wisely. It shouldn’t always be about the money but do your work for your love for Art. Anything you are doing, do it well and never look back; there is hope once there is life.