Two renowned Nigerian female artists, drawn from different generations, Peju Alatise and Nike Davies-Okundaye, are having their moments in the international limelight at the Frieze Art Fair in London, UK. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Among the international contemporary art market’s much sought-after key events, the Frieze Art Fair occupies a special place of honour. The art fair, which hosts 180 international galleries and hundreds of contemporary artists every year for five days, owes its beginnings to a magazine founded in 1991 by two childhood friends, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, and was officially launched as an art fair in London, UK, in 2003.
Featured among its many participants this year are two leading Nigerian female artists, Peju Alatise and Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye, courtesy of kó Gallery. Already, Alatise’s “Sim & The Glass Birds”—or its recent unveiling as part of Frieze Sculpture 2022, a public art exhibition that features 19 works by a variety of artists, including the renowned Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone and the late American poet and performance artist John Giorno—should have caught the attention of art-biased netizens, thanks to that in-your-face social media buzz around it.
Talking about this sculpture exhibition, which has been on since Wednesday, September 14, it runs until Sunday, November 13 at London’s Regent’s Park. Alatise, already renowned as one of the leading Nigerian experimental multidisciplinary female artists, has remained in the industry’s limelight since her 3-D work, “Flying Girls,” was featured during the 2017 Venice Biennale, in which she participated as one of the artists at Nigeria’s debut pavilion. That was the same year that the 47-year-old fellow of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art also won the prestigious FNB Art Prize. This was before she was selected to feature at the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale. Besides being celebrated for her landmark local and international exhibitions, the ANAI Foundation founder was recently known to have organised artist residencies in Morocco and Turkey.
Her four-panel public installation, which draws inspiration from the Yoruba tradition, is based on the fantasy flights of a 9-year-old domestic servant, Sim, to an imaginary world that is swarming with Yoruba mythological creatures. Traumatised by her dreadful condition as a child labourer in Lagos, Sim seeks solace in her dream world.
The work, made of granite cast, stainless steel, mild steel, resin, and glass, depicts Sim with glass birds in flight, which will eventually break, that are stuck above the panels. This fragility serves as a metaphor for the futility of her escape and its terrible, unavoidable end.
Meanwhile, kó Gallery is featuring Nike Davies-Okundaye’s work at Frieze Masters, which will end on October 18 at London’s Regent’s Park. The textile-based offerings include batik, patchwork and embroidery, which kó Gallery’s founder Kavita Chellaram affirms are recognised as works of art. The septuagenarian artist, who is also known for her paintings that are inspired by Yoruba mythology, seems to be more celebrated for her batik and textile designs, which have seen her give workshops in Europe and North America.
She often recalls how, as a child, she learnt what she needed to know about textile design from her great-grandmother, a holder of the traditional title of “Iyalode” of Ogidi, who didn’t only weave fabrics but also made the tie-dye fabrics, locally known as “adire”. But she would later learn the art of indigo dyeing and adire-making from the town’s informal art school, which was established by the late Ulli Beier and his wife, Georgina during her adolescent years in Osogbo.
Chief Davies-Okundaye, who is distinguished in large meetings by her large fan-shaped headpieces, or “gele,” is frequently spotted in public wearing regal clothing made from these “adire” textiles, which she has contributed to popularising.
The Kogi State-born matriarch of the visual arts scene owns a large gallery building, named Nike Art Centre, off Lekki Expressway in Lagos as well as three other cultural centres in Osogbo, Abuja and her hometown Ogidi. In these art centres, she offers free training to over 150 young artists in the arts. She once disclosed in a CNBC Africa interview that she had trained over 3,000 young Nigerians for free, though this number should have since increased thanks to her tireless efforts at helping many less-privileged establish their small businesses and also through her art workshops in different parts of Nigeria.
Over 15,000 artworks, mostly by other Nigerian artists, occupy most of the spaces on the four floors of her Lagos art centre, leaving relatively little space for her own works. This was indeed the purpose for which the gallery building was conceived.
The woman, popularly known as “Mama Nike”, has since her more than 50 years of studio practice participated in over 102 solo exhibitions and 36 group shows. 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 private homes.
A holder of prestigious chieftaincy titles – the Yeye Oba of Ogidi-Ijumu and the Yeye Tasase of Osogbo – currently lectures at several universities in the US, Canada, and the UK, even without a university education.
Her presentation at Frieze Masters London, which includes textiles, dyeing, weaving, beadwork, painting, and embroidery from the 1960s to the 1980s, is included in the Spotlight section, which is a curated section of the fair dedicated to pioneering women artists of the twentieth century.