Renowned Nigerian female artist and textile designer, Chief Nike Okundaye-Davies was the toast of local aficionados last Sunday, as she marks her 50 years of art practice. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
She easily stands out among the guests in high-profile local art events. Her large fan-shaped head-tie, known locally as gele, is usually the first thing people notice about her. Then, if eyes linger long enough on her, people tend to be stunned by her regal looks, even when she sports only local tie-and-dye prints outfits, known as adire.
No doubt, Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye is easily the most recognisable personality in the local Nigerian art scene. Hence, she would easily be a serial-winner, should some organisation decide to dole out annual awards for originality.
Of course, there are also her exploits in the contemporary Nigerian art scene. It is to these that she owes the large turnout of personalities at the Nike Art Centre, off Lekki Express-way in Lagos for the 50th anniversary celebrations of her studio practice, held on Sunday, January 27.
True, the woman popularly called “Mama Nike” is more celebrated for her batik and textile designs, which has seen her give workshops in Europe and North America. But, she is also renowned for her paintings, which are obviously influenced by her links with the informal Osogbo Art School. The forms in her figurative paintings, which are inspired by Yoruba mythology, have wormed their way into aficionados’ collective consciousness from the 1968, when she held her first solo exhibition at the Goethe-Institut, Lagos. Her works have since 2012 found their way into the collection of The Smithsonian Museum as well as The Gallery of African Art and The British Library, in London. This is in addition to the others in other public collections worldwide and in private homes. In the exhibition circuit, she boasts of over 102 solo exhibitions and 36 group shows.
Nonetheless, she is more celebrated for her philanthropy and passion for empowering the less-privileged. Her four art centres – in Lagos, Osogbo, Abuja and her home town Ogidi – offers free training to over 150 young artists in visual, musical and performing arts. In a CNBC Africa interview, she disclosed that she had trained over 3 000 young Nigerians for free. She has since increased the number through her tireless efforts at helping many less-privileged establish their small businesses and also through her art workshops in different parts of Nigeria.
Her Lagos art centre, which can easily be spotted from the ever-busy Lekki Express-way, displays over 15,000 works produced mainly by other Nigerian artists. This centre, she explained, was conceived as a gallery designed to give every Nigerian artist a voice. Here, their works take up most of the spaces on all its four floors, leaving very little space for her own works.
Even with visitors regularly swarming to the gallery space, which is easily the biggest in Nigeria, this adds little or nothing to the gallery’s coffers. Since the gallery charges no entrance fees, this implies that the cost of the huge electricity bills is borne by its management.
Even when Chief Davies-Okundaye affirms that she divides her time between her studio work, her family and the gallery, she is almost always accessible to all visitors. Indeed, she confirms that she creates time to see many of her visitors, especially who visit from outside the country.
The Kogi State-born woman, who passion for adire has almost become legendary, owes her so much to her upbringing in her home town Ogidi-Ijumu. She had lost her mother when she was only six years old and her grandmother the following year. This was how she came to be raised by a great-grandmother, who was the head of all the craftswomen in Ogidi-Ijumu.
As a child, Nike learnt what she need to know about textile designing from this woman, who held the traditional title of “Iyalode” of Ogidi, not only wove fabrics, but also made adire fabrics. But, she also attributes much to the fact that art runs in her family. Besides her late mother, who was an artist, there was also an aunt, who later raised her, who was an artist. As for her father, he was a trumpeter.
Choosing to become an artist seemed the logical thing to do under the prevailing circumstances. Still, the lack of funds to continue her education was all the incentive she needed to follow her calling. “I had wanted to become a doctor or lawyer, but soon discovered that there was no opportunity to do that,” she says.
It was during her adolescent years in Osogbo that she learned indigo dyeing and adire-making from the town’s informal art school, which was established by the late Ulli Beier and his wife, Georgina.
But her actual lucky break came in 1974, she was among the 10 artists picked from the continent to teach traditional weaving in the US. While in the US, she not only visited museums, she also learnt new skills, which included quilt-making.
Chief Okundaye-Davies, who turns 68 on May 23, currently lectures at several universities in the US, Canada and the UK, even without a university education.
Though a devout Catholic, her culture occupies a special place in her heart. She not only holds a chieftaincy title from her home town – the Yeye Oba of Ogidi-Ijumu – she also holds another from Osogbo: the Yeye Tasase of Osogbo.
Talking about Osogbo, she recalls visiting the Osun-Osogbo river goddess as a seven year-old. She had promised the goddess that she would proclaim her all over the world, if she helped her realise her ambition.
Still on the Osogbo connection, the story of her like would be incomplete without alluding to her former marriage with the late famous Osogbo artist Twins Seven-Seven, for whom she born the son, Olabayo Olaniyi, a College of Santa Fe graduate, who is also an artist. She cherishes the support she gets from her current husband, who retired as a senior police officer. According to her, his passion for art predated his work as a policeman. Besides, there is also the fact that he hails from Edo State, whose capital city Benin is known for its bronze sculptures.
This amiable iconic lady of the contemporary Nigerian art scene, who has patented her unique adire-themed fashion style, looks forward to a time when everyone adire would be worn by almost everyone in the streets.