Gallery Space for Pantheon of  Nigeria’s Creative Spirits

A soon-to-be-commissioned extension of the Nike Art Gallery in Abuja adds a whole new dimension to the federal capital city’s cultural profile. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports 

Now that the word about the official commissioning of the upgraded Nike Art Gallery in Piwoyi village is out, Abuja’s growing art community should be seething with excitement. For, as part of the venue’s grand opening, high-octane events have been lined up from March 28 to 31 to herald this latest addition to the premises of the Nike Art and Culture Centre where the Nike Textile Museum is also housed.

After relocating to the imposing Nike Art Gallery edifice — believed in some quarters to be the largest privately-owned gallery in Africa — along the Lekki expressway in Lagos in 2009, Chief Nike Okundaye longed to replicate the feat in the Federal Capital Territory.  

But then, the story of the Abuja base of the Nike Art Gallery, which is only one of its four outlets in the country (the others outside Lagos are in Osogbo and her hometown of Ogidi-Ijumu in Kogi), started way back in 1999. That year, an opportunity to experience a little bit of the federal capital territory’s rustic life presented itself to the Nigerian art and culture matriarch, affectionately known as “Mama Nike” among the local cognoscenti. This was while she was in Abuja for an exhibition opening.

She encountered the local women, whom she referred to as “Obirin Igbari,” carrying their loads on their backs in one of the city’s outlying rural communities, and fell in love with their lifestyle. Soon she was pondering how she could integrate art into their fascinating way of life. 

Could this be why she voiced her intention of opening a gallery there? These women, she believed, deserved to be given the opportunity to develop their skills. They already wove hats and caps for the Fulani people, but she hoped to teach them more about weaving, and that was just the beginning.

Soon after, the villagers’ culture-loving chief first offered her workshop space in his palace and later a parcel of land, which it later turned out belonged to the government. This was when the then-Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nasir El-Rufai, who was impressed with her efforts thus far, advised her to purchase the land from the government. So, with the minister’s help, she was able to formally acquire the land. 

In the new space, she taught the women how to make adire tie-dye, traditional weaving techniques, and designs with chicken feathers.  Former US President Bill Clinton and former Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, she recalled, were able to tour the gallery, which was decked with adire and weavings, while they were in Nigeria for the THISDAY Awards.

Meanwhile, the pioneer trainees of this art centre have, more than two decades later, since got married and became employers by their own rights. Talking about employment, Chief Nike Okundaye had acted on the advice of the then US Ambassador Howard Franklin Jeter, who saw employment opportunities in her workshops. 

“This was how we started our youth empowerment programmes,” she disclosed in a recent interview. “My aim was to develop the innate artistic talents of these youths because art is the voice of the individual.”

The centre, like its sister outlets elsewhere in the country, is also open to students on industrial training programmes and interested members of the public. 

When it comes to nurturing art entrepreneurship, the Nike Art Centre remains a paradigm, if not trailblazer, on a path that seems to be getting trendier by the day. Perhaps the founder’s perseverance and commitment to the cause of improving the lot of the less-privileged—she herself having to claw her way up from modest beginnings—made the difference. About the gallery, she said, “Our vision has also been to make art as life and life as art. All forms of paintings, sculptures, and other mediums of art will be exhibited in the gallery. We believe the gallery will be a hub for tourists, art enthusiasts, and scholars.”

The March 28 opening, which is expected to be graced by Culture and Tourism Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed and members of the diplomatic community led by the US, UK, and the Republic of Korean ambassadors, is a nod to the commemoration of Women’s History Month, which began on March 1 and ends on March 31. In a letter of congratulations, the Republic of Korean ambassador, Kim Young-chae, praised Chief Nike Okundaye for her “foresight and huge investment in opening one of the biggest galleries in Africa.”

The ambassador also lauded her “achievements and accomplishments,” which he said earned her the appointment as goodwill ambassador of Expo 2030 in Busan by the Korean Embassy in Abuja. “Nike is indeed a role model for Nigerian women in that she has overcome all hardships to be an iconic artist, educator, and philanthropist.”

Indeed, the celebrated female artist, who first learnt indigo-dyeing and adire-making from the informal art school established by the late Ulli Beier and his wife, Georgina in Osogbo, operated her first gallery, which she called “Africa No. 1 Shop” from her bedroom.

Her artistic talents, aided by her marketing skills, easily won her name recognition in the local art community.

Mr Kim also expressed his confidence that “this new gallery will grant Nike more opportunities to promote Nigerian art, particularly among the diplomatic corps and international companies in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

Since 1974, when she was selected as one of the 10 artists from Africa to teach traditional weaving in the US, her ascent up the ladder of fame has been impressive. As a textile artist, she has given other workshops in Europe and North America. 

Then, there are her paintings, which proclaim her links with the informal Osogbo Art School from the rooftops, and they have — among her other works — found their way into the prestigious collections of the Smithsonian Museum as well as the Gallery of African Art and the British Library, in London. Of course, they can also be found in other high-profile public collections worldwide as well as in private homes, including that of a former US vice president, Walter Mondale.

Chief Nike Okundaye, so-called because she holds a chieftaincy title from her home town (the Yeye Oba of Ogidi-Ijumu) and another from Osogbo (the Yeye Tasase of Osogbo), currently lectures at several universities in the US, Canada, and the UK, even without a university education.

No doubt, the inauguration of the new gallery space, which she considers as an extension of the already-existing one in Abuja, adds a whole new dimension to the federal capital city’s cultural profile.  This is besides the fact that the art space, alongside others in Lagos, Osogbo, and her home town of Ogidi-Ijumu, has trained over 3000 young Nigerians for free in the visual, musical, and performing arts.

“We appreciate all the encouragement and support towards this project, and we consider it a national symbol, bringing together the soul and spirits of a nation where diversity is its strength,” Chief Nike Okundaye wrote in a recent statement to her teeming well-wishers. 

The gallery space, she added, will be opened daily from 10 am to 6 pm to the public. 

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