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.
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.
‘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.
“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.