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The material of life according to textile queen Nike Davies-Okundaye

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Veteran Nigerian artist Nike Davies-Okundaye has made her name innovating the art of her heritage and giving other women hope by paying it forward.


The best learning process of any kind of craft is just to look at the work of others,” says Nobel prize-winning Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka on pursuing a life in the arts.

This observation is perhaps most true when applied to the life and work of fellow citizen and internationally-renowned batik artist, Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye has reached the pinnacle of her career thanks to an enduring dedication to preserve and innovate the culture of her people. 

The daughter of impoverished traditional artisans, she did not, like many artists of her stature, receive any formal education in art or preparatory schooling. The poverty of her childhood led her to leave school after the sixth grade. Instead, she was trained informally in the traditional crafts of her people through methods practised by women in her family for generations.

Veteran Nigerian artist Nike Davies-Okundaye. Picture: Supplied

Yet, over a career spanning five decades, Davies-Okundaye has gone on to educate generations of artists, at no cost to them, through a network of art centers across Nigeria. A far cry from the girl shaped by tragedy very early in life.

“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,” she recounts.

Following the death of both her mother and grandmother, she was taken in by her great grandmother, an established adire, a specialist in the traditional art of fabric dyeing of southwest Nigeria. From her, Davies-Okundaye learned to weave fabric on traditional looms beginning the family’s fifth generation in the craft. 

Her father, too, was a practitioner of the traditional arts. An accomplished basket weaver, he also practised embroidery and leather work and was a known musician in the community.

In Ogidi, parents passed on their skills to their children in a form of vocational training concentrated within the household. Davies-Okundaye started as early as seven.

“Once in a week, they taught me crafts. This craft they [taught] is for [us] to be able know how to do handwork… so that’s how I was learning.” she recalls.

An adept student, drawing from her family’s many artisanal specializations, she quickly developed her own style and technique in textile weaving and painting.

Unfortunately, the young woman wasn’t allowed to nurture her talents for long. Her family made the controversial decision to marry her off when she was just 14 years old, an event that would impact the course of her life very powerfully.

“They married me to a minister who already had four wives! This is why I ran away from home and joined a traveling theater,” she says.

It was the traveling theater that took her to Osogbo, the Nigerian town where she first established herself as an adire in her own right. Historically, it was the source of beautiful handmade indigo textiles and, in the 1960s, it became a nucleus of contemporary African art in the country. 

Indigo to the Yoruba people is the color of love. The process of adire-making is therefore a labor of love. It involves extracting indigo from the indigenous elu plant using labor-intensive techniques followed by painting and resist-dyeing the fabric with a homemade cassava emulsion.

As she became better versed in adire, Davies-Okundaye decided to sell her work in what would be her very first gallery, out of her bedroom, in 1968. This was her entry into a formal career in art.


Batik art by Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye. Picture: Supplied

‘I called it African Art Number One Shop and I noticed that it was only expatriates that would come to my shop and buy the pieces,” she says.

During this time, she matured as an artist, experimenting with fabric design and painting as well as teaching herself a new language, English, to communicate with her foreign buyers.

One of them was Alan Donovan, the acclaimed American gallerist and collector of African artifacts. Arriving on the continent in 1967 as an aid worker during the Biafra War, Donovan took every opportunity to travel around West Africa discovering the art and culture of the region.

When he stumbled upon Osogbo, it was inevitable that he would end up at the door of the African Art Number One. Now living in Kenya, Donovan became a repeat customer. He would return time and again, encouraging her to make more work, which he would take to Nairobi.

Her work would be distributed to discerning collectors like Donovan. Among them was Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first Vice-President and one of Africa’s most recognized private art collectors. From that one-room gallery, Davies-Okundaye reportedly sent over 100 pieces of her work and that of other Osogbo artists to Nairobi. 

In 1972, Donovan organized the Nigerian Festival, part of a pan-African trade fair, in Nairobi. This was officially Davies-Okundaye’s international debut at the gallery of the African Heritage House, founded by Donovan and Murumbi’s wife, Sheila, the same year. The partnership continued for decades, returning Nike numerously to Nairobi for East African exhibitions of her Adire.

Interest in Kenya led to her first international tour, taking her to the United States at the invitation of the American government, along with 10 other established artists from across the continent. The experience, she insists, was a catalyst for the founding of her art centers and business in Nigeria.

“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,” she remembers.

What she brought back was an even greater passion and understanding of art, one that has led to philanthropy via her eponymous art centers. The first opened in 1983, where she worked with disenfranchised women on the streets of Osogbo. There, much like her own informal education, she shared with them her skills in adire, weaving, painting and other traditional arts for free. The centers have since grown to three in other Nigerian cities: Abuja, Lagos and her hometown, Ogidi.

The Lagos center also houses Davies-Okundaye’s monumental art gallery, said to be the largest in West Africa with over 8,000 pieces from artists across Nigeria. The gallery, which opened in 1996, was a direct influence of her American tour in the 1970s.

“The gallery that had in Osogbo was nothing compared to what I saw [in the US] and I [wanted] to build a gallery where everyone’s voice would be heard,” she says.

True to form, the gallery has achieved all that and more. She has been responsible for discovering new talent in the country and actively takes on an up-and-coming artist every month, building her collection and diversity of voices piece by piece.

Any one of these young artists may look at her career and wonder where her secret to success lies. She is honest about the obstacles in an industry that in many parts of the continent remains largely unrecognized.

“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,” is her advice.

However, the patience that has carried her through has been fueled by careful financial planning. As an entrepreneur, Davies-Okundaye has endured because of this. She reinvests at least two-thirds of her income in her business and art centers.


Batik art by Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye. Picture: Supplied

“Always plan ahead because if you make money today, you may not make any for several months. I keep working. Even if I can’t sell any pieces, I’ll find other work to pay for the materials,” she says.

This earnest combination of hard work, frugality and philanthropy has made Davies-Okundaye a veteran artist of not only Nigeria but of Africa. She has had pieces on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC for the past six years.

The Gallery of African Art in London held a month and a half retrospective of her work in 2014. Next year, she will return to the Smithsonian for a celebration of her 50-year-career. Her work is cherished in private collections all over with world.

That doesn’t stop her from adding to her repertoire. Aside from adire and textile painting, she recently began working with beads, producing intricate portraits depicting life across Nigeria, completing a single piece over the course of a year.

Even at 67, Davies-Okundaye has no plans to retire.

“I still make time for my own work… and I still manage to cook for my husband,” she laughs.

-Marie Shabaya

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30 Years And Still Grooving

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Emotions run high as Mango Groove celebrate three decades of one of their biggest-selling albums. The mixed race band, formed during the apartheid era, reflected the pain and politics of the time in their music. 

South African music has evolved over the years but its African authenticity remains in the notes of the 35-year-old pop band Mango Groove.

FORBES AFRICA shared a few moments with them as they rehearsed in their North Riding studio, 40kms north of Johannesburg, one glorious summer afternoon in February.

To celebrate 30 years of their 1989 eponymous hit album, the band will be performing a one-off anniversary concert at Teatro in Montecasino, Johannesburg, in March.

Vocalists of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

We first speak to Claire Johnston, the lead singer of Mango Groove, who has been with the group for 34 years. Johnston started at the age of 17 when still in school.

Those memories are still fresh. 

Born in England, she had moved to South Africa when she was three with her parents at the height of apartheid. 

“In 1989, things went big for us [Mango Groove]. Prior to that, we had been playing around clubs and small venues. We had a few singles on the radio between 1985 and 1989, and then we had this lovely record deal that got us to all South Africans and huge exposure at the right time. South Africa was ready for a mixed race band called Mango Groove,” Johnston recalls.

In one year, the band sold out six shows at the Standard Bank Arena.

“The album had just come out – we were all over radio, television, and magazine covers; it was very exciting and we were putting on a show at the arena which accommodates about 6,000 people.

We sold the one show, then the second, then the third, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eventually we had to do the seventh, but because tickets were pirated, we had to put on a show for free for all the people who had been conned.


Claire Johnston

That was the night Johnston saw ‘the Mexican wave’ for the first time.

It wasn’t easy being in a mixed race band, because of the racial segregation laws that existed in South Africa. It was during this tense period that they released their Another Country album with a song written by group founder John Leyden about the state of the country. It was an overtly political song, however, their African tunes saw them through. 

There were also instances when the band couldn’t play together at certain venues. They would play in downtown clubs in Johannesburg where black and white South Africans would jam and interact as if restrictive apartheid laws did not exist.

Post democratic elections in 1994, Johnston says she was proud to be South African. She recalls the band’s performance at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration that year as one of her most memorable.

“That experience was amazing. It was just an amazing sense of optimism and possibility. South Africa was on the world stage for a positive reason and for change. Then, we performed for a massive crowd at the Union Buildings, it was black and white South Africans, it was the best time, it was mostly emotional,” she says.

The band, nonetheless, has lost a few members over the years and Johnston sobs as she remembers the late Mickey Vilakazi.

“When I joined the band in 1985, Mickey was 64 and he passed away prior to 1989 and he missed all the excitement, he missed the changes in the country, he missed the wonderful release of The Hotel Room.

John Leyden of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It makes me sad that he wasn’t around to have seen that, and of course Banza Kgasoane who’s the father of Mo T (band member of popular South African house band Mi Casa). He was our trumpeter for many years. Phumzile Ntuli has also passed on. We ultimately had to keep going, move on. I imagine if I go, I hope Mango finds someone to replace me,” she says.

As the conversation flows and the band rehearses in the background, a cheerful man wearing khaki shorts appears bearing a glass of whiskey, walking towards a water container to mix his spirit. He is Sydney Mavundla, a trumpet player and one of the new members.

“I joined the band in February 2008, just after getting married. The trumpeter before me was Johnny Bower; I used to play for him when he was not available. He got a full time with an orchestra, that’s how I got the job,” he says.

Mavundla describes the band as family. He used to listen to them growing up; little did he know he would be a part of it. He was fortunate to work with legendary artists such as the late Hugh Masekela.

“We recorded two albums with Bra Hugh and then an album with the late Oliver Mtukudzi. If we are talking about Mango Groove, I want to believe it is different from the beautiful energy the old-timers had. Now it’s a bit youngish in terms of the horns, it’s not the original horn players who started the band,” he says.

Playing a tune, Mavundla talks about the freedom they now enjoy as newer artists.

“I am very excited about the upcoming concert. The first time you heard Mango and the very last time you heard Mango – that is what you should expect to hear. Thirty years is a long journey and that is 30 years of what you are going to hear. Better than that, you are going to see a very energetic, groovy Mango Groove. Come with your dancing shoes if you want, you won’t be disappointed,” he says.

The trumpeter wishes Africans would read more about South African music instead of western artists and their music, and recalls Masekela’s quote:

One day, our kids will be asked ‘who are you’ and they will respond ‘we used to be Africans, they used to call us Africans’.

The band’s founder Leyden also joins the conversation, saying he just wanted to be in a band as a teenager.

Leyden is Zambian-born but came to South Africa at the age of eight. He lived his life through the political transformation of South Africa and as an artist, never affiliated himself with politics. Instead, he started a band.

“In terms of the influences of Mango and what drove me, it was a pop act but we were very easily influenced by South African urban music forms from the 1950s and 1960s like kwela music, marabi music and African jazz sounds. They were music forms we loved.

“Mango was a funny little group of people, some came, some went, it was totally an organic process and we did what we did. When the first album broke big, we were more surprised than anyone.”

Sydney Mavundla of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

For the upcoming concert, Leyden and the gang are working on a huge production. They want the event to be about memories of the late band members, as well as celebrating the band’s journey.

Elaborating further, Johnston says the big night will be about nostalgia, energy and emotion.

It will be the eighties all over again in a country that has neither forgotten its bitter apartheid past nor the music that defined the long hard years of pain and political fervor. 

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Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

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In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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From Fishing Village To Gastronomic Heaven: Tables Turn For Wolfgat

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In a small fishing village on South Africa’s rugged west coast, restaurateur Kobus van der Merwe is struggling to process his meteoric rise to gastronomic stardom.

He recently got back from Paris, where four days ago his 20-cover Wolfgat was named Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, also winning the remote location prize.

“In our category, which was for the off-map destination… there are restaurants that we literally hero-worship and we were like, this is insane,” the food-journalist-turned-chef told Reuters TV on Friday in his first interview with foreign media since returning home.

Others on that shortlist included Japanese wild dining sensation Tokuyamazushi.

Of both prizes, he added: “We never dreamed of making the shortlist, let alone winning.”

Situated in Paternoster, about 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Cape Town, Wolfgat’s speciality is seafood.

Van der Merwe’s seven-course tasting menu pays homage to the region’s long-gone indigenous inhabitants, and his signature dishes are flavored and supplemented with ingredients foraged locally, such as seaweed and succulent plants.

They include Rooibos tea-smoked yellowtail with dune spinach and buttermilk rusk, and freshly baked bread served with bokkom (salted dry fish) butter and infused herbs.

Guests at the 130-year-old whitewashed restaurant, nestled above Wolfgat cave within hearing distance of crashing waves, pay 850 rand ($60), or 1400 rand including drinks.

Van der Merwe, who took the plunge into full-time cooking before completing his culinary studies, said he had no wish to expand or replicate Wolfgat in an urban setting.

“We certainly don’t aspire to be in the city because the west coast is our muse and I can’t see Wolfgat existing anywhere else,” he said.

His clientele is split evenly between foreign tourists visiting the village and well-heeled South Africans.

But those who make the two-hour drive from Cape Town had better be sure of their reservations before they set out – because he’s fully booked for the next three months. -Reuters

– Wendell Roelf

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