I didn’t go beyond primary school, but I teach PhD holders -Mrs Nike Okundaye How I stopped 3000 Nigerian girls from sex trade Why I tied headgear for Mandela BY CHRISTY ANYANWU Chief (Mrs) Nike Okundaye is a renowned textile artist and Managing Director, Nike Arts Centres and Galleries located in Lagos, Abuja, Osogbo, and her home town, Ogidi-Ijumu, Kogi State. As one of the country’s cultural ambassadors, Mrs Okundaye, through her creativity has been able to put Nigeria on world map. As part of her capacity building efforts among budding and established artists, she also facilitates workshops and training programmes in the US, UK, Italy and other countries across Africa and the Caribean. A committed artist and patriot whose career has spanned five decades, Nike causes a stir everywhere she visits. Her adire costume, and humongous headgear make her stand out anywhere. She is urging today’s youths to hone their talents and market properly instead of waiting for non-existing white collar jobs. She spoke to Effects recently about her humble beginning, her journey into the arts, her style, what life has taught her and many more. Excerpts
At what point did you become famous?
It was the time I had a breakthrough to travel to the US and see how people over were making a living for themselves. That was 1974. After I returned to the country, I said to myself, if these people could package their arts properly, I should be able to do likewise. So, I began to train my colleagues, especially, the females on how to be self-reliant through their handiwork. I made sure I wasn’t working alone. I shared my knowledge.
How did you collect the works in your gallery?
Art is inborn. I’m among the fifth generation of artists in my family. I weave; I design Adire (tie and dye), I paint. I created some of the art forms but other artists did the other works. The works that were done by other artists, we help them to sell and they plough the money back into creativity. My works are for keeps. They are like babies to me. I don’t like to sell them. I only sell to museums. We have 15,000 Nigerian artists who work in this building out of about 35,000 artists. Nobody knew most of them but Nigerian arts is also gaining popularity like Nollywood. For example; there is a fair in London called One-54. 54 African countries came under one umbrella every October, to showcase African arts. People visit London during the fair to buy African artworks
In all these things, what has life taught you?
Life has taught me to be closer to my root, share knowledge and if you have an opportunity, grab it. That explains why I was able to seize the opportunity to travel to the US in 1974. When I got there, I engaged in teaching and I returned to Nigeria to teach my people here. Today, I have four centres. I was invited to Italy to teach some Nigerian girls on how they could work with their hands but not their body. It took me between 3-4 years to convince about 3,000 ladies to dump prostitution to become entrepreneurs in Italy. Presently, they are using their textile to design linen.They design for hollandaise and other textiles.
The way you tie your headgear, (gele) is distinct, how did you come about the style?
When Mandela died, our boss, Prof. Wole Soyinka asked us to create something that would represent Mandela. They said that Mandela is like a canopy to Africa. He was our icon. Instead of a canopy, I made a head tie that resembled a canopy, a giant African country. Our gele is our crown. In Nigeria, we love our head ties. So I created that head gear because of Mandela. Gele has become the trademark of Nigerian women. So, I call it canopy, its an extra-ordinary head tie. Whenever I traveled out of the country, people would stop me on the road and say, can you put this on me? In London, they would stop me to have pictures with me. They love the head tie.
Being a very busy woman, how do you spend your leisure time?
I divide my time into three. I use one part for my family, one for my work, and another part for my centre. Every week I visit my centre in Oshogbo, spend time with them. I wake up 5.am to make my husband’s food, get his lunch and dinner ready. He doesn’t eat food from anybody.
Is he an artist also?
No, he’s a retired commissioner of police. He’s already 82 years. He’s one of his kind. He’s from Igun Street in Edo State, Benin City. Igun is a street of bronze artists in Benin.
The people love arts.
How did you meet him?
I met him in Oshogbo; he was the first commissioner of police in Osun State. Then, there was a German art teacher resident in Osogbo, her name is Georgina Beier. She was the teacher of all Oshogbo artistes. She said that we should go and see the Commissioner of police but we artists were always afraid of the police. We went there and I saw some of my artworks in his house. He disclosed that he bought the works in the 70s but he had not met the artist until that day. He lost his wife about two years before we met and today we are husband and wife.
What informs your style?
I try to make Nigerians proud of their textiles. That was why I wore the Aso-oke and Adire. I like to wear creative attire. I wear materials that I weave.
How often do you travel to your village?
On Saturday 18th (today), we’re going to celebrate our new yam festival in Ogidi-Ijumu, near Kaaba, Kogi State. It’s an annual festival during which people come together to share joy and give thanks to God for blessing the works of their hands in the past year. It is a joyful moment in the whole village because people come home from far and near. Wherever you are, in London, US and all our friends follow us to the village for the festival. Some of my friends (Americans) that you met here have been attending the festival for four years. They also join me to climb the mountain. You would write your name on the mountain and anything you ask through prayers, you’ll receive it. Historically, the Nupe war ended on that mountain.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Mama Adire (Laughter) I’ll like to be remembered as an artist who promoted the culture of her own people. I like turning trash into treasure. For instance, instead of burning rubber and polluting the air with its smoke, we’ve turned it to something you can put in your garden. These are stones but we have turned them to objects of protection. I want to be remembered as an artist and a mother of artists.
Most people believe that artists are fetish, and are traditional worshippers…
(Cuts in) I’m a catholic. Art is your handwork.This is creativity but many people are not aware that creativity is life. When you create something with your hands, it’s not idolatry because it’s not kept in a shrine as an object of worship. People should understand that this is talent. This horse was made with tyre. I’m a catholic. When bishops visit this gallery, they don’t want to leave. Whenever Rev. fathers visit, they also want to stay. This gallery was blessed by a Rev. father. The wall paint is designed with Adire. As you can see, I decorated the gate with Adire also. I did this to inform people that even though you don’t wear the adire, you can put it on your wall.
How do you relax?
Ojo iku lojo isimi (There is rest only in the grave). When I relax, I’m not comfortable. I like to be engaged with something and I hardly get tired, I hardly fall sick but the day I lie down and I told myself that, today I would not go anywhere, I will fall sick. When I wake up at 5.am, I do my cooking and get to the gallery 8.00 am. I walk round the gallery. Sometimes, I climb the staircase up to four or five times. That’s my own exercise. When visitors come to the gallery, I have to tell them about the works and take them
What advice do you have for aspiring female artists?
They should know what they are good at. If they are good at cooking, cooking is art. They should focus on it and do it well. If they are good at sewing, they should sew well and shortly after, they will begin to make money. But if you are a graduate and you’re shy that people will call you a tailor instead of designer, please let them call you whatever they like, as long as you’re making your money. I want them to remain focused and the sky may be their beginning.
Between adire and the arts, which one yields more money to you?
The textile gives me income for upkeep of the home. As for artworks, if you sell big once in a year, you’ve got it good. Although the textiles give you small money, it is also good. At least you are getting some income.
You have so many foreigners coming here, what informed that?
This is the first place they visit when they arrive in Lagos. When people go on the Internet, just tap trip advisor and the first place to visit is Nike Gallery. I don’t have a signboard, I have made Lagos State proud with this gallery because when Ambode became the governor, the first person he gave an award was myself. I’m not a politician but people chose me because I run workshops for women on how to make Adire and I encouraged them to mentor other people. In Abuja, Gov. el-rufai used to be our supporter, he built a road for us, he made the centre comfortable for us to train young people who were roaming about the streets. In Oshogbo, we receive people from Abia, Cross-River states and the rest.
Does your humility have to do with your background?
I lost my mother when I was six years old. My grandmother died and my great grandmother raised me. I grew up from nothing. I sold wares for my grandmother. That was why I was to be able to attend school up to primary six, so that I can express myself. I always thank God because, then, I could not speak English, For example, if I wanted to tell people that this is my work, I would say this is my signature. So, I didn’t stop learning. I learn from the younger people working with me. I tell them that if I make mistakes, they should correct me. I didn’t attend secondary school but today, I teach people abroad. I teach people with doctorate degrees. I teach in Harvard, Canada, Uk, and other African countries.
I was to be retained overseas as instructor but I said No, I wanted to return home and teach my people. Every minute I thank God for his grace over me, growing from nothing to become somebody.