The Kaleidoscopic Life Of Nike Okundaye
“A sanctuary of beauty to an ugly world” is the mantra that hits you as you walk into Nike Art Gallery. Hit by the sudden warmth that greets you, you can feel your heart affirm that this is one of the “wow-effect” moments you will ever experience.
On one side of the entrance is a sculpture of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti playing the saxophone and the other, animals known for their resilience and fierceness. And if your eyes seek more pleasure, there is the Topshop right after the entrance where Gele, Ankara products, and books are sold to satisfy your heart’s desire.
“Welcome, come have tea,” Chief Oyenike Monica Davis-Okundaye says as she ushers me in. Although her voice rings in my head, I am lost in the vast amount of creative work that lies in one building. Home to over 8000 art pieces, Nike Art Gallery is the largest privately-owned art gallery in Africa.
At 68 going on 69, Nike Okundaye walks with stride and is excited to show The Guardian Life around. As we work around the photoshoot and I tell her about the focus, she quickly chimes in, “the focus is not me. The focus is female.”
Nike Davies-Okundaye needs no introduction. In fact, many readily identify her as the speaker invited to Ivy League schools who has no formal education.
Born at a time when women’s voice was not heard, Okundaye was married off to her first husband, Twin Seven Seven at 14. Okundaye’s mother and grandmother passed on when she barely knew life as it is.
Unable to afford formal education, her father, a basket weaver and a traditional drummer, sent her to her great grandmother- a master of Adire and other traditional art craft- where she learned Adire and weaving while teaching herself English after dropping out of school after form six. By then, she had learned embroidery from her father.
Refusing to be discouraged, she took on a job as a labourer as she grew older, carrying blocks and mixing concrete in Osogbo. Thankfully, her textile designs continued to generate attention.
“Looking back, this choice is not what I liked. I would have liked to have a formal education and still be able to do my craft. If I had that opportunity, I would have become a minister by now. But the underprivilege I have is the way they marry some of us in those days. We had no voice of our own and this makes me feel bad for those who have lost out because of this.”
Her courage which she would be known for in the future, sprung after she decided to divorce her husband 15 years later. Twin Seven Seven had, by then, had added 14 more wives to his bounty. She would mention in an interview with the Nation Newspaper that his decision to do this is because “he just enjoyed seeing two women fighting over him because he was a handsome man.”
Yet this would not deter her. Rather than settle for the life that she had, she struggled to find success on her way to adversity. Many of this came in developing her style of Adire making (textile design).
She joined other traders who would frequent Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial city, to sell their wares. During her many trips to the city of Lagos, she would, in a proper business fashion, “wear my work, I call it wearable art.
I would say (to passers-by) ‘if you wear this Adire and you are beautiful before, you will look more beautiful.’ Then people will come to me and say, do you have this one and I’d say yes.”
Soon enough, she caught the attention of Alan Donovan, the acclaimed American gallerist, and Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first Vice president. And before one could say, Jack Robinson, she was visiting 50 states in the US, holding workshops and delivering lectures and representing Africa in many art exhibitions.
She would also aid over 5000 women who had engaged in sex work in Italy through Adire production, weaving, and other art and receive recognition from the United Nations (UN).
While many would now agree that Okundaye who holds several awards in different countries including Italy where she has the highest merit award conferred on her by the president of the country, has carved her name in stone, Okundaye admits that her success in a male-dominated industry is not an easy feat.
Beaming with smiles and like one lost in the long-held memories, she recounts a time when her male counterparts showed their disdain by making arrest attempts because of her gender and because she was already considering venturing into an even more manly profession- film production.
“They said what I was doing was a taboo. In fact, they went to report me to my husband. He was the commissioner of Police in Osogbo. I was learning film production at that time because I said, ‘if art doesn’t sell, I will be a film producer. We got to the station and he said, ‘why should I arrest her?’ ‘They said, ‘she is doing men’s work’ When I got to America and men started coming to learn weaving that I said, so this weaving that I came to teach women alone, men can learn, they said ‘yes, anything a woman does, men can also do’ ”.
She is not the only one who suffered this fate.
“The person who is the teacher of all Osogbo artists is a woman but they never put her name in exhibitions. The woman then would always feel bad, even her husband. He would always say, ‘It is my wife who is your teacher. I am only a writer and not your teacher.’ ”
She adds that those outside the shores of the country are not exempt from this approach to women achievers.
“About two years ago, the Smithsonian Museum of African Arts and Culture, had only 11% female artists in the US. Can you imagine? And last year, they had up to 22% female and they focused on female artists.”
“You need a lot of patience and honesty in this journey. It is still happening now.”
Even in society especially with the advent of social media “wokeness,” there have been conversations and arguments that women who shatter the ceilings have often been the reason for the downfall of other women or as society puts it, “women don’t support women,” an argument her efforts is quick to dispel.
“When I had my breakthrough that made me able to travel to teach textile in the US, and I got back, I was training the other women- we were married to one man (15 of us), and that is how we were able to train ourselves.”
Passionate about women development, a part of her fame is also because she extended this teaching to over 5000 sex- workers in Italy earning her the national awards of merit, the highest in the land, only this time, adding the use of machines in their Adire process making and other traditional art.
As if that is not enough, Nike Okundaye boasts of 4 schools in different states where disadvantaged women – widows, young mothers, people without white-collar jobs are taught Adire, weaving, painting and other cultural arts for free. A small sect of these women are those who come from Nigerian and abroad Universities to undergo 3-months training before their return to school.”
Preaching women independence on the part of the woman, she believes that the bedrock to gaining respect in a patriarchal society is to find yourself doing something.
“Women share their problems among themselves. We are not enemies, we are sisters. There are so many women that this affects so I always advise women to find something to do.”
While Nigerians applaud her impact in Africa, it is clear that to International brands such as Christian Dior, Mama Adire’s impact on the art industry. During Dior’s creative designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri’s visit to Nike Art Gallery in 2019, she was full of praises of African textile designs and expressed her honour to meet the infamous Okundaye, and enjoined her to encourage the use of machines. As Nigeria, “has made a name in the fashion industry,” it is only right that producers of Ankara embrace the use of Adire to produce their textile designs,” Mama Adire adds.
Fortunately, International brands are not the only ones that share in this bias and have embraced. “90% of our collectors are now Nigerians even though expatriates still buy.”
Still in the business of promoting African textile designs, over 102 solo art exhibitions and 36 group art exhibitions later, “the First Lady Of Gele Gala” as she is fondly called by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, wants to be remembered as “someone who carried the culture of Adire alone and as a crown everywhere I go.”