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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

Arts

IN PICTURES | The glass ceiling is what she makes it

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One of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, Nani Croze, has lived a life few could dare to imagine, and introduced a new expression supported by her art, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.


The journey to the Kitengela Glass estate begins like any other from Nairobi. Traffic is often heavy and there is frustration on the roads. But as you pass through the last of it, a different world unfurls. The road is murram (gravelly) and a new settlement is unfolding around it, overlooked by a new railroad track for the high-speed train to Mombasa, recent signs of development consuming the old Maasai plains.

But no less than a mile away, cushioned by the narrow gorges of the Nairobi National Park, is the entry into a wonderland where the life and work of German-born artist Nani Croze has concentrated for over the last 40 years. It is an eccentric paradise with a lush covering of indigenous trees and shrubs, canopies over stunning and colorfully outrageous architecture that announce the artist in her territory.

However, her life in Kenya was a gift of fate. Croze first came to East Africa with her first husband, the animal behaviourist, Harvey Croze, and their children at the end of the 1960s.

“I came to Africa in 1968 to study elephants in the Serengeti and four years later, the study was finished and we decided to go back across the continent back to Europe. I filled a VW van with my three kids, safely in the back, and we got as far as the Kenyan border. The car broke down and we stayed…and that was that,” she tells me in the aviary area outside her house as birdsong echoes around generous foliage.

Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

Mother Nani, or ‘Mama’ to the community of artisans and their families that also call Kitengela Glass home, is a matriarch in this setting. Her hair is pinned up in a loose bun revealing tanned cheeks and piercing blue eyes.

A formidable painter and muralist, Croze is an artist of many mediums. However, a little-known fact is her life in science. As a young woman, she convinced the Nobel Prize-winning biologist and founding father of the science of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, to work under him. Her earlier works depict this scientific knowledge in lively wildlife motifs.

Nonetheless, she is perhaps most known, these days, for her work with glass. Her estate is testament to this; colored glass panels of all shapes and sizes line the structures at the entry of her world. The winding walkway is flanked by sculptures accented with thick glass. The outdoor seating is dalle-de-verre.

The workshop and furnace are open for passersby to see. Its products, ever-present at every corner of the estate, also decorate the balustrades of the estate’s gallery, roof to her personal studio, intentionally constructed around a formidable mogumo (African fig) tree, a souvenir from the early days. She found it growing on the barren plains of what would become estate when she arrived in 1979, a genus local legend claims can never die.

By this then, a single mother of three, Croze stumbled in to the glass arts out of economic necessity.  She had purchased the land from the Maasai community of the area and was, at the time, a working muralist.


Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

“My architect [told me] ‘you can’t pay school fees with murals, you better start something new, what about stained glass?’” she recalls.

An influx of Christian missions meant that stained glass windows were crucial for finishing new churches and, as an art, they were more profitable. This has since expanded to a wide-range of recycled glass products from blown glass to beads, mosaics, murals, sculpture and, of course, dalle de verre. However, the stained glass studio, the first on the estate, still remains, busy and peopled, tucked away in a quiet corner of the gallery building.

Croze, perhaps one of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, is often credited for introducing this new craft to the region. She herself is self-taught and along with her son, Anslem, trained by glass-blowers in the South of France and Holland, built the first furnace in East Africa. He eventually took over the glass-blowing side of the business and now runs his own studio next door along with an eponymous retail brand in Nairobi selling decorative glass vessels, furniture and lighting.

In her own right, Nani is responsible for training the first Kenyan glass artisans, initially in stained glass and then in glass-blowing and mosaics.

“We started together, my first [assistant] was a man called Omondi. We started on stained glass-making and how it works and it’s quite a process but once you’re in it, like all my guys here… you get quite good at it. It’s a traditional and weary process but once you have [the finished window] you have something beautiful that can never be undone,” she says.

Of the things that cannot be undone is Croze’s legacy not only within the community of the estate and the industry she has created around it but in the lives of many in East Africa.

Kitengela Glass is home to more than 50 artisans and their families, many of whom have gone on to build independent careers in and outside of glass art. An example is Edith Nyambura, formerly the resident mosaic artist, who began her career at Kitengela and eventually wrote a book about her work in 2010.

There is also the young Patrick Kibe, colloquially known as ‘Mr. Dudu’ (Mr. Insect in Kiswahili), who arrived as a student at the estate almost a decade ago and is now carving his own niche, creating figures and sculptures of indigenous flora and fauna from recycled materials.


Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

Then there is the school Croze founded, not far from the estate, often billed as the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Her motivation was to introduce to the country the creative education she had received as a young girl in Germany, which she regretted that her own children did not have attending local schools.

“We have such terrible schools in Kenya that are so bad for children! A child should grow up free, they should have music, art, new movement and environment,” she laments.

The Rudolf Steiner School started with a class of 10 in Nairobi’s leafy Karen suburb, popularly known as the setting of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen’s pre-colonial odyssey.

“It took its time. We had a very good worldwide sponsorship, especially from Germany. We’ve had our ups and downs but now we have two in Karen and the other one in Kitale [in western Kenya].”

In addition to her contributions in education, she is also a key campaigner for young artists across Kenya. She is the founder of the annual Kenya Arts Diary, a weekly calendar and catalog of up-and-coming contemporary artists in the country.

The ninth edition was released in November with an exuberant exhibition at the Nairobi Museum and since its founding has been produced by a group of passionate volunteers. Every year, she picks up two artists featured in the diary and invites them to a residency at the estate. The inspiration for the project, she says, was her father, the acclaimed German woodcut artist HAP Grieshaber, who also took a similar interest in his students.

“He would always help his students. Art is very expensive most people can’t buy it so you either make it yourself or you make sure it happens. The diary is just a venue to make sure people buy it and see it every week,” she notes.

Although the next issue of the arts diary will be her last, Croze remains ever passionate about her adopted home and community and hopes to continue giving back to it while she is still alive.

“I was the first mzungu [Caucasian] in Maasailand…we had a really good relationship and we still have with the Maasai community but my Ma is still not very good, I must say. I feel very much a part of the community,” she says.


Glass work by artist Nani Croze. Picture: Supplied

Croze is a focal point at the Nairobi National Museum, from the dalle-de-verre mural that welcomes museum-goers at the main exhibition hall, to her mosaic path that snakes through the museum gardens to the goliath metal and glass sculptures that mark the way through the complex. She remains one of the few living artists in Kenya to have such a permanent and public showing.

Even away from the whimsical glass oasis that she has built, echoes of her are littered across Nairobi. Her commissioned murals on major commercial buildings such as the American Embassy in the city’s diplomatic district. She was the first to color the walls of the newly-established United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, in 1972. Her art is also at the Times Tower in the heart of the old city, home to the tax authority. There are also pieces dotted across the region, a recent commission at a call center in Eldoret, in western Kenya, and the windows at the Serena Hotel in Kigali.

“I just want to make sure that it all keeps going.  There are always problems here and there, all the time, but I want to keep it going,” she says.

Croze, true to her word, is still going with plans for a vocational school to train a larger population of recycled glass artisans in the nearby township of Tuala. Plans are also underway for a devotional school to replace her personal chapel that was lost in a land dispute and, of course, more commissions while she is still able to work on them.On the future of the world around her, a life’s work, she is surprisingly indifferent. “I leave it to the Gods,” she ruminate

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IN PICTURES | The ugly dress that made this designer

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Gracia Bampile’s dislike for African print made her turn it around into a full-time obsession.

It all began with a pink dress – a present she received a week before her seventh birthday from her parents. Gracia Bampile put it away excited for the day she would wear it. 

She recalls going to school and telling everyone about her new outfit. The enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. She changed her mind about her gift the moment she wore it and took a closer look at it. 

“I remember thinking I would rather not celebrate my birthday. I was traumatized… The dress was just horrendous.”

The material felt like plastic, it was ugly, it was not the right fit, and even for a seven-year-old, she knew the design did not make the cut.

“I felt like I was wearing a granny dress. My birthday was just ruined by that dress,” Bampile recollects.

 “I got so angry with my parents that I couldn’t let go. That’s how my passion for fashion started. I didn’t want to feel like that again.”

That was her epiphany, the start of a fashion journey, disliking African print as a result of a bitter experience. She thought it was too bright and stayed as far from it as she could.

 Today, Bampile is a fashion entrepreneur setting the standard for African print. She is the founder of Haute Afrika, a contemporary brand that prides itself in affordability and class.

She was born in a small town called Goma in the east coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1991 – on the border line of the DRC and Rwanda. At the age of six, Bampile and her family left the DRC, leaving her seamstress-grandmother behind. They moved to East Africa and lived in Uganda for about seven years, then Kenya, then arrived in South Africa when she was 19. They left due to the conflict in the DRC that still rages on.

“My granny was a tailor. At some point, she stopped making clothes. My gran didn’t teach me to sew on purpose… [Yet], on holidays, we would go visit her in Rwanda and I would be her assistant,” says Bampile.

Just two years later, her aging grandmother saw her resourcefulness and promoted Bampile to crafting complete garments.

That is how her style evolved, through her grandmother’s experience in sewing. She was big on quality and passed it down to the next generation. 

“That is something that is seen in Haute Afrika’s designs today. My garments are not constructed to sell, we are big on quality and our sewing is impeccable,” says Bampile.

Her complicated relationship with African fashion changed, the more she interacted with patterns and the creation of garments.

“When I got to the age of 15, I thought maybe it’s not the African print [that’s the problem], it was probably the way it was presented to me. I went on a journey of rediscovering African print and design. My love for it was revived,” she says.

When she was a teenager, African print was not readily available. Her mind-set then was not to be a designer, she simply wanted to look good and got her clothes made by a tailor.

By 2012, when Bampile was 21, African print was rising in popularity – people started wearing it and it was easily accessible.

This was also a time when Bampile was in varsity and experimenting with African patterns. She says people would stop her and ask about her garments, and the idea of Haute Afrika began simmering in her mind.

“It started as an African fashion blog; I started an Instagram account, opened a Facebook page and reposted other people’s designs because I didn’t have my own stuff. I never saw this as an actual thing, it was just for fun,” she says.

“Clearly, it’s not the material or the tradition or the culture [that’s the problem], it’s just the way it was presented. And that’s what I’m big on – presenting African print as your normal everyday wear.

“I want to you to be able to wear this dress to church, work, a birthday party, a baby-shower or to a wedding.”

In her new collection, she aims to simplify African print as much as possible. There is less extravagance and the ordinary bright colors persist, to attract the everyday person who wants to represent Africa.

The brand was launched in 2016 after she started taking it seriously as a profession. She went back to her grandmother for design advice. She started doing research and did a short course in fashion to enhance her credentials.

Importing material from Nigeria, Congo, Ghana and Turkey, Bampile intends to expand her reach to other parts of the globe.

“The next step for the brand actually scares me. Sometimes I feel like my dreams are crazy. The name haute itself means height/high in French, so in fashion, haute couture means high fashion, but for me it’s Haute Afrika because this is Africa, I want Africa to have a brand that is big on its own and emphasize quality.

“This means taking Africa out of Africa. European brands are coming into Africa, but why aren’t African brands going out?” she says.

Haute Afrika mostly sells online, to clients outside South Africa. She says her biggest clients are in Europe and America. Her most recent buyer was from Indonesia.

Speaking about her progress in the industry, Bampile adds: “I previewed my stuff at the Free State Fashion Week and it was super-awesome.

“The reaction was just unbelievable. Some designers take years to showcase at a fashion week and I took two.

“Last year, I was really surprised. I did 10 weddings – three white and the other seven were traditional. I couldn’t believe people trusted me with their weddings when they haven’t seen [enough of] my work.”

In 2018, she scaled up, doing about 15 weddings.

“I am also proud of myself this year because I have more people buying Haute Afrika for everyday wear,” she says.

The requests from her clients have also diversified.

“A gentleman came in and he wanted a transformation of his wardrobe. We made 10 pants for him. That’s what he’s probably going to wear next year. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m not only attracting people that have events, but also the everyday person, which is what I wanted to do with my collection.”

Bampile employs two full-time and two part-time workers at her studio in Sandton, miles away from that first garment that wrecked her seventh birthday but made her whole life. 


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Percelle Ascott, the Zimbabwe-born actor, who’s on a roll on Netflix

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His beginnings were in a two-bedroom apartment in a South London estate he shared with his mother, aunt and cousins.

That’s all Zimbabwe-born Percelle Ascott had, besides a childhood filled with beautiful memories.

“I remember riding my bike everywhere, playing football and making treehouses. All the kids who grew up on my estate knew each other, and it was probably where my love for acting grew from.

“I had a wild imagination for all the things I didn’t have. I would make something out of nothing.”

Such mental calisthenics obviously helped. Today, the 25-year-old Ascott is a British actor with a plum role on the Netflix sci-fi romance series The Innocents.

His family moved to London when he was three. His recollections are a mixed bag – struggles and triumphs, and a mother who is his role model and motivation.

“I’m sure every family has struggles, especially financially, when you live in London, but I was blessed to have a hard-working mum and aunt who always provided for me and my cousins,” he says.

There are an estimated 700,000 Zimbabweans in the United Kingdom (UK). Most jokingly call the UK ‘Harare North’.

Ascott didn’t need much coercion to take to acting; his first stint was at the age of 11, in a school play.

“I played Mowgli in Jungle Book. My mum told me how I would recite everyone’s lines if they forgot them. But it wasn’t until I went to secondary school where I came across an exceptional drama teacher who instilled so much confidence in me.”

He dreams to be a part of some exceptional storytelling.

“We only remember the stories that shaped us, shaped our perspective on the way we view the world. I hope I can create meaningful real characters people can relate to; [they] can laugh with me, cry with me and go through a journey together.

 “I remember watching the film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and couldn’t help but think about Denzel’s character. The journey his character goes through is so powerful given the timing of the film. At the start, he has this ignorance toward HIV/AIDS which is shaped differently when he meets Tom and becomes his lawyer fighting his case. I’m sure it must’ve informed the opinion of audiences who had the same perspective on HIV/AIDS.”

Ascott’s new role in The Innocents has been since June 2018. 

“The casting was a lengthy process that required me to do a few rounds plus chemistry tapes with different actresses, but I guess that’s what it takes when you’re trying to find Harry and June [the lead protagonists]. Their romance being so crucial to the story, that energy between them being something that just has to fit,” he says.

 Ascott proudly represents a country many wish they didn’t come from.

“Since the launch of the show on Netflix, I’ve had a huge number of fellow Zimbabweans reach out to me. I find that special because it’s not something a kid from Zimbabwe has as their career trajectory, to be a lead on a Netflix show.”

In the future, he plans to lead film projects in Zimbabwe.

“There are more and more projects being funded in Africa as a whole. South Africa has a fast-established industry growing there. Why not Zimbabwe? I told my dad already we’re going to build a film studio in Zimbabwe one day. There are so many stories from Zimbabwe because of its vast history. Let’s show the world what the real Zimbabwe looks like…”

Other than acting, Ascott produces, writes and directs films. He is also co-owner of The Wall of Comedy, a platform on social media with a following of eight million people.

For young African aspiring actors, he also has some advice.

“Hard work, determination, and perseverance. Ultimately, I would say love. A love of what you do. A love of why you do it and to always use that as a compass for the choices you make.”

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