Chief (Mrs) Nike Davies-Okundaye hails from Ogidi, Ijumu, Kogi State, Nigeria. She was brought up amidst traditional weaving and dyeing practice in her native village of Ogidi. Her artistic skills were nurtured at a young age by her parents and great grandmother who were musicians and craftspeople. She spent the early part of her life in Osogbo, which is recognised as one of the major centres for arts and culture in Nigeria. During her stay in Osogbo, indigo dyeing and adire production dominated her informal training.
She is the founder and director of four art centres, which offer free training to young artists in visual, musical and the performing arts. She is the owner of the largest art gallery in West Africa, comprising over 7,000 artworks. The centres also serve as a rich source of knowledge for traditional arts and culture scholars and institutions. ‘Mama Nike’ as she is fondly called is known all over the world for promoting her designs through exhibitions and workshops in Nigeria, USA, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy and the United Kingdom. She is currently making waves in the United States of America at The Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts in Washington DC. This year, the Smithsonian are hosting different female artists from 54 countries and Mama Nike is privileged to be among them. Speaking with Saturday Sun recently, she spoke about arts, her life, among others.
Can you tell us about your works at Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts?
The Smithsonian said this is the first time they will increase their female collections from 11 percent to 22 percent. The title of my work is Eriga. This portrays female going for peace protest to show what they have in their heart to the government. In those days, we used adire to communicate. The exhibition is on until July 20, 2020. Being in Smithsonian is a great achievement. Also, I just got a doctorate degree in South Africa. I was amazed the day I just got a call from South Africa (The Rhodes University) about the doctorate degree. We thought it was a 419 call. My husband insisted we call the SA embassy to be sure. The Rhodes University said every year they award doctorates to people from different fields. They put down 400 names in the whole of Africa. That was how I got Doctor of Fine Arts (DFA). I came back home from SA , in the spate of two months, Osun State University awarded me, Doctor of Africa Arts.(DA)
There are many artists in Osun and the state is known for their good arts. They felt I deserve an award, but took into cognizance that there are lots of artists in the state, they decided to throw it open. I was eventually chosen for the award. I would be delighted sending teachers from my trainees to train students if eventually they have Faculty of Arts. Arts of Osun will never die.
Is it true you have four schools of arts?
Yes. I opened the first school in 1982, I found out that arts could really take you out of the country and change your life. That was when I decided to share my knowledge with my people in Osogbo. I gathered 20 women from the streets; young ladies selling kolanuts, pepper, matches and bread are taken off the streets to start dyeing of clothes. I started with them. Then, I moved to the boys because I don’t want to be tagged a feminist. The boys made me proud with their creative zeal. I chose Osogbo as my headquarters. I have students from universities in Nigeria. Some even come from other African countries and the United States of America to study indigo and Adire. But the school in Abuja is for those who came to search for white-collar job and doesn’t get the job. I name that Research Centre. It focuses on my research of producing Adire from the East, West and doing Adire from different parts of Nigeria e.g. Jos and Benue. The one in Ogidi in Kogi State is for single mothers, underprivileged, and widows. They are weavers. They weave natural colours from Kolanuts and onions dye. The one in Lagos is at Badore. There, we teach girls from the streets who have no means of surviving. But that one is not large yet. I work with Adara Foundation, Yaba, where I train students and they are producing already. Lanre Da-Silva is one of the designers using my textile on the runway. She’s been showcased on CNN and BBC promoting indigenous textile. Also, Fate Foundation asked us to run a workshop for the people in my village and they supported the workshop.
Growing up, did you envisage you will become popular?
No. I don’t even know I will become somebody to reckon with in the society. My father had no house. I grew up in poverty. That is why I always tell my students that hard work can take you anywhere. I never knew I would have money to feed three times daily. Growing up was tough. Thank God for people who shared their food with me. That was how I grew up. I never knew I will be known. I always give thanks to Almighty God, to my village, city of Osogbo and our king in Osogbo. I’m blessed to have the favour of many kings––the Ooni of Ife (both the old and the new one, have been a great support) and Oba Elegushi among others. All these kings have been helpful. The king of my village gave me the opportunity to grow and share my little knowledge with people who have no hope. I keep telling them there will always be hope if they work hard and if they are patient.
How do people see your gele (headgear)?
In the past, Immigration would check and check the gele. One day, they were checking my gele in Morocco airport, I opened my bag, brought out my phone and showed them the selfie pictures I had with the king of Morocco with my gele. The king was in my gallery in Lagos and I took picture with him. Immediately I showed them the pictures, that scrutiny ended. A lot of people want to take pictures with me abroad. They ask, where are you from? I tell them Nigeria, and that gele is our crown in Nigeria. Prof. Wole Soyinka recently took me to Italy to showcase gele. The event was called: ‘Gele Gala’. These days, we have Singele, we have Auto gele, and everything comes from this gele. I started wearing my kind of gele to signify that Nigeria is the giant of Africa. That is why I love to wear it. I’m not ashamed of my gele and my culture.
Tell us your journey into your business?
I lost my mother when I was six and I lost my grandmother when I was seven. The knowledge was passed on to me by my great-grandmother who was the head of all the weavers in our village. Once in a week, they taught me crafts. This craft they taught, was for us to be able know how to do handwork. That was how I was learning.
Could you tell us about your first travel in the course of promoting Arts?
We were privileged to be the first artists from Africa to travel to America in 1974. They asked us to bring something back that would benefit our people. They took us to galleries and museums and they allowed us to see their craft. I always know my work. So whatever you do, you need to do it very well and I tell people don’t rush, you will get there at the end of the day. Have peace in your heart.
How was your trip with Prof. Wole Soyinka?
He took me to Napoli two years ago while showcasing his private art collections. We were on the boat from Panama to Napoli. They were amazed and even said we should put gele on their head. They were so happy with Prof. Wole Soyinka for bringing along the culture of his people.
How do you relax?
At night, I do my beadwork. I spend three hours every night to do that. I tell the younger people that culture is my heritage. In those days, when there was no telephone, people talk through their textile. That is what I’m still portraying to younger people.
Do you have children taking over from you in future?
Yes. My first son is a professional artiste. He has a doctorate degree in arts, and my second son has a master’s degree. I have six children and they are all artists. I have architects, computer artist. Now, my other daughter who was running the gallery here is now a fashion designer, designing leggings.
What lessons has life taught you as a person?
To be patient and also have a focus. To have focus in whatever you know you are good at is important. Do it well and the sky is your limit. If you know you are good at cooking, do cooking.
Getting focused has helped me a lot in life. Life has taught me to be focused and get focused on what I know how to do better.