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.
Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai
The South African actor and musician was impressed with the city’s architecture, food and work ethic.
South African actor and musician Anga Makubalo, known by his stage name NaakMusiQ, calls the Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai a luxury destination.
NaakMusiQ, who hails from Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, shot to fame after appearing in the award-winning South African soap opera Generations and has since been in a number of television shows.
He has also had a chart-topping music hit, Ntombi ft Bucie.
NaakMusiQ’s first trip to Dubai, known as the melting pot of the Middle East, was last year on an Emirates flight when he traveled Business Class. The fashion-lover admits to being a light packer, although there are some items he would never travel without, such as cologne, a pair of sneakers, and his music.
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“I also carry my scripts all the time. Because of the long flights, I can get tired of watching a movie, I can get tired of listening to music, so the next best thing is to get into my script and get a head start.”
He has been to Dubai before, but only transiting the airport connecting to another flight, so this was his first official trip into the glistening city.
“Dubai is everything that people say it is,” he says. “We went to the mall. It was crazy! I’ve never seen anything like it before. [The Dubai Mall] has a full-on aquarium inside. In the middle of the center, there’s like this huge fish tank. It’s crazy! That was probably the highlight of my visit.”
The actor was also intrigued by the city’s architecture and skyscrapers.
“I’m actually very huge on architecture. It’s actually something I wanted to study. Their engineering is absolutely insane. The way they’ve built this place and the designs – it’s luxury, one after the other. We drove for hours admiring the architecture because I’m such a nerd when it comes to that. I love it.”
Dubai has a sizeable African expatriate community, and no dearth of African culture. As a musician, NaaqMusiQ had been invited to the city.
“Africans that have immigrated to Dubai request their favorite African artist to come over so that they’re still connected to Africa and home. The nice thing about that is, as much as it is our people that have invited us there to perform, they have influenced people from there [Dubai] and other parts of the country [UAE] to come and listen to our music.
“Because they’ve become residents there, they have friendships where they introduce African music to the people of Dubai. So when we went there, there were quite a lot of people, even though some couldn’t sing along, there were a lot of people who went crazy when my song [Ntombi] played.”
During his time there, NaakMusiQ was also taken to restaurants serving African food. This came as somewhat of a surprise for the actor that the Arab city boasted a range of eateries specializing in African cuisine.
“We had a lot of Kenyan food that I hadn’t tasted before, which was really nice. They’ve got Tanzanian food, they’ve got South African food, Zambian food; it’s just a whole African experience there. And they do well actually.”
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While NaakMusiQ didn’t interact with the natives of Dubai, he did get a sense of what they are like. The hustle and bustle of the city left him greatly motivated.
“Everyone in Dubai is there to work. Everyone is there to hustle. People think that Dubai is this big, fun place, which it can be, but even people from there aren’t out partying every night. It’s people from the countries that are visiting that are out partying. Everyone else is really working. Some people are so hectic when it comes to business and money that they don’t have a life outside of their work.
“When they do have nights off, they choose to be at home or to put in extra hours working. It just made me want to work harder. That is the impact… Everyone there wants to do better. The standards there are incredibly high. What we would consider as good here is probably entry-level there,” says the hit-maker who now plans to return to Dubai wealthier and with more cash to splurge.
Stone Town: From Freddie Mercury To The Farms
The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.
Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.
The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.
Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.
There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.
The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.
“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.
His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.
Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.
“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”
Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea.
I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.
In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.
The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.
“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.
Marvel Money: How Six Avengers Made $340 Million Last Year
Since its premiere in April, Avengers: Endgame has been sending shockwaves across the Marvel multiverse, with a worldwide gross of $2.77 billion and counting after the movie’s return to theaters last month. With its domestic gross sitting at $848 million, Endgame is the second-highest-grossing film ever both in the U.S. and overseas.
That means a payday not just for Marvel Studios but also for the Avengers themselves, who have negotiated their way to superpowered deals. Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list of the world’s highest-earning entertainers this year features six Endgame heroes, from Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor) at No. 24 overall with $76.4 million (not all of his earnings were from Avengers) to Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) at No. 83 with $41 million. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Chris Evans (Captain America) also assembled and made the cut. Together, the team earned $340 million.
“Celebrities such as Downey and Johansson currently have extreme leverage to demand enormous compensation packages from studios investing hundreds of millions of dollars in making tent-pole films, such as The Avengers series,” says entertainment lawyer David Chidekel of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.
Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president, seems to agree: “We started saying that the character is the marquee name, and I think that’s still true, but I think we’ve been very lucky and thankful that the actors that imbibe these characters have now become them,” he told Forbes of the highly compensated group in 2017.
Marvel signs actors to multi-movie deals that also include promotional commitments. These deals often start off in the seven figures, which helps explain why newer superheroes like Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) and Tom Holland (the latest Spider-Man) didn’t make the Celeb 100 cut. But as actors stay with the MCU, their salaries increase. Veteran Marvel stars can command an upfront salary as high as $20 million (Downey). Others top heroes can earn in the neighborhood of $15 million (Hemsworth, Johansson, Evans), while second-tier characters make about $8 million (Rudd).
But the real money comes in later. All of this year’s listees proved so valuable to Marvel that they were able to negotiate for a piece of the profit—also known as contingent compensation—on both the ensemble Avengers films and their individual superhero films.
“A studio’s incentive to grant contingent compensation to various actors, writers, directors and other key personnel is simple. Movie studios depend upon tent-pole films to support their financial performance,” says Chidekel.
These points pay off. Avengers: Endgame, for example, has made about $700 million in profit from its box office run so far. For Downey, who has around 8% in back-end points, that translates to about $55 million, for a grand total of $75 million for the one film.
Even smaller characters like Cooper can command about 1% of the back end, which would translate to $7 million for Endgame. For their star vehicles, these actors can negotiate an even bigger cut of the profit.
“The percent of budget cost have certainly skewed heavy, particularly on the Avengers movies, to cast now, whereas maybe in the early ones it was more visual effects or below the line,” Feige said in 2017. “But that’s okay because [the actors] are the best effects.”
These sky-high paychecks have proved to be a worthwhile investment for the studio. With a built-in audience of comic book fans, scripts that are both funny and socially aware, and a powerful marketing strategy, MCU films have grossed over $22 billion since 2008. These actors continually return many times their salaries in box-office dollars. For instance, while Downey earned that eye-popping $75 million from Endgame, the film grossed $36.90 at the box office for every dollar he was paid. Those on the lower end of the earnings spectrum, like Rudd, produced over $100 at the box office for every dollar they were paid.
“Certainly the strange alchemy of seeing characters you’ve never seen before teamed up together on screen, if they were different versions of those characters, it wouldn’t be as fun,” Feige said. “It’s expensive but well worth it.”
We think Nick Fury would agree.
-Madeline Berg; Forbes Staff
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