A swift 30 minutes’ drive from Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos leads you to Lekki suburbs, home to the Nike Art Centre, a busy double-story building that keeps some of the best and most treasured contemporary artwork in Nigeria.
The white halls, decorated with castings of Yoruba art patterns, mimicking the unique techniques of indigo cloth dyeing, also known as Adire, display some of the 7,000 odd artistic works in this gallery.
The award-winning Nike Davies-Okundaye and her husband worked hard over decades to build a business enterprise that spans the whole of Nigeria.
Mama Nike, as she is popularly known, needs no introduction. She is one of Nigeria’s best known art entrepreneurs. Her life story rivals the drama and intrigue of classic novelist Charles Dickens’ characters—deprived orphans prodding through life against the back-drop of an ugly world, but eventually making a success of themselves at the end.
Okundaye lost her mother and grandmother at a young age. Still her misfortunes, that virtually rendered her an orphan, didn’t rein in her urge to work hard. Even with hard work her business struggled for many years to take off owing to a lack of interest in the arts by many people. Numerous other factors, including politics, contributed to her challenges. At one stage tension between the government and artists ran so high that it stifled creativity in the country. But as luck would have it, Mama Nike met her current husband who was then a senior police administrator. His influence led to the antagonism easing out and artists provided new platforms and opportunities for expression.
Okundaye started her business in 1968 as a textile artist in Kogi. At that point she used her bedroom as a gallery. She eventually moved to Oshogbo, the headquarters of her business empire today. Since then, her business has expanded and has branches in Ogidi, the capital Abuja and Lagos. The Lagos art gallery, completed in 2009, is where she generates most of the revenue that supports the operating costs of her other business centers.
“In Nigeria, only oil is discovered but good artists aren’t. My aim is to discover artists and to showcase their beautiful work in our country and in Africa as a whole” says Mama Nike.
Her art centres reveal prospect for the economic benefits that can be reaped through art in a country that offers limited opportunities for artists. They conduct workshops where art students learn the practical aspects of indigo cloth dyeing. The students are all women from surrounding poor, rural communities.
Although it costs a premium to teach, house and feed each one, the women do not pay a penny. Okundaye covers their expenses. Mama Nike also supports these women by selling their artwork on their behalf at her gallery in Lagos.
The Lagos Art Gallery caters for both first-time and seasoned art collectors with artwork prices ranging from $62 to $ 38,000.
In this gallery, some of the most sought-after artworks by well-known contemporary Nigerian artists fill the walls. The displays of painter Rom Isichei, well known for high textured surface of oil or acrylic and outstanding skill in the use of colors, take up a whole wall. The adjacent wall showcases Kunle Adegborioye’s latest works, which capture the essence of the current political and socio-economic issues in Nigeria. The displays provide an artistic vision that depicts real life and mythical stories of hope and despair.
The gallery has made 60-year-old Okundaye’s business one of the most promising art enterprises in Nigeria. The sizable tourism industry has benefited her business in many ways. Over the years, tourists, excluding the international art collectors, have been the main consumers of her artwork. To cater for this demand, Okundaye has created a tourist paradise in each of the other three centers, namely Oshogbo, Abuja and Ogidi. The centers offer three services: guided tours, inexpensive lodges and arts exhibitions. A visit to the Oshogbo center, for example, would be more than just about her artwork. It would give a full exploration of ancient Yoruba culture. Oshgobo, in the cocoa-producing region, provides an awe-inspiring experience. The environment is enriched by the presence of internationally known artists such as Jimoh Buraimoh, Jacob Afolabi and Chief Oloruntoba.
Mama Nike believes that things would be rosier for her business if people understood the investment value of art. “You can use art as collateral at the bank and as a stock,” she explains.
Her second last daughter, Allyson-Aina Davies, recently returned from England, is planning to tap into the potential the creative industry in Nigeria and Africa has to offer. As the managing director of the Lagos gallery, she will be in charge of over 7,000 artworks of Nigeria’s finest in the industry.
The value of the creative industry is about to explode now that international and local art collectors are recognizing the investment value in Nigerian art. The 2010 UNESCO report on the creative industry indicated that “…the large majority of developing countries are not yet able to harness their creative capacity for development. This is a reflection of weaknesses both in domestic policy and in the business environment, and global systemic biases.” Benedict Enwonwu’s piece titled Underwater Still Life made waves in 2008 when it fetched $27,788 at Bonhams in London, exceeding the pre-estimates phenomenally. Two years later, Nigerian artwork was still attracting cash and collectors abroad. At the first commercial auction of artworks from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States (New York), the five most expensive pieces were from Nigeria. One of Ben Enwonwu’s paintings went for $91,000.
International interest in Nigerian art has also sparked interest locally over the past five years. The banking and the oil and gas sectors created dollar millionaires in Nigeria and out of this select group a few individual collectors have emerged. Recently, the Ben Enwonwu Foundation hosted a workshop on art as an alternative investment. Prince Yemisi Shyllon, Nigeria’s biggest collector whose collection at his house can take more than a day to view, was in attendance. He says in Nigeria “Art could be a form of investment, and is growing tremendously.” Commercial art auctions were not common in Nigeria until 07 March 2008 when Kavita Chellarams hosted the first commercial art auction in Lagos. Since then Chellarams’ Art House Contemporary has hosted seven auctions with average sales tallies exceeding 70% by volume per event. Among several of Mama Nike’s artworks that featured at these auctions were the piece entitled Village Market Scene which fetched $8,750; an untitled piece by Tola Wewe sold at $16,666; and the unsold Poetic Pattern of Love with an estimated value between $5,260 and $6,580.
Developing interest in Nigerian and African art both locally and internationally is certainly Mama Nike’s intention. Until her dreams are achieved she is unlikely to put her feet up or hit the golf course.
Emerging Economies, But Weaker Passports
Africa dominates the bottom of the rung in the 2020 Henley Passport Index. A majority of the continent’s passport-holders don’t have the luxury of visa-free travel around the world.
The African Union may be gearing for a common African passport, but for now, it seems like most African passports don’t have what it takes to get to other parts of the world.
In the recently-released Henley Passport Index, which measures all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, only two African countries –Seychelles and Mauritius — are in the top 50.
The rest of the continent dominates the bottom quarter of the rankings with weaker passports than most, pointing to difficult and intensive visa processes in most cases.
Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most influential, Nigeria, is at the end of the travel freedom spectrum, at a pitiful number 95 with Djibouti. Nigeria’s population of 200 million can only travel to 46 countries without obtaining a visa in advance.
Even passport-holders from Samoa and Serbia have a better chance of traveling to most places in the world, visa-free, than those in South Africa, the African continent’s second biggest economy.
Ranked 56, the number of global destinations South African passport-holders can travel to is 100.
It is followed by its southern African neighbor, Botswana, ranking at 62 with a score of 84.
Seychelles, the archipelago country in the Indian Ocean, is Africa’s top-ranking African passport in this regard, at 29 with access to 151 destinations worldwide.
It is quickly followed by Mauritius which is at 32 with a score of 146 destinations passport-holders of this country can visit.
The lowest-ranking African country is Somalia at 104. Passport-holders from this tiny nation in the Horn of Africa can only visit 32 countries without a pre-departure visa
Globally, Asia dominates the list. For the third consecutive year, Japan has secured the top spot on the index — which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191. Singapore holds on to its second place position with a score of 190.
Executive Travel: Slikour’s Mexico
The South African hip-hop artist and entrepreneur experienced a hurricane and a seismic spiritual shift in the city of Cancun.
It has been a journey, a lot to learn and a lot learned,” says Siyabonga Metane, popularly known on South African hip-hop stages as ‘Slikour’.
The learnings have been in music and business, but the journeys have been beyond both.
Just two years post South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994, Slikour was part of a rap group named Skwatta Kamp, formed on the streets of the country’s Gauteng province, with the aim of commercializing the local hip-hop scene.
The group consisted of seven members and most of them went on to release solo albums. Slikour released two, Ventilation Mix Tape Vol.1 and 2, in 2005 and 2007. Long before that, in 2002, Slikour had turned entrepreneur, co-founding Buttabing Entertainment, a record label and artist management organization.
Today, he is also the founder of SlikourOnLife, a prominent urban culture online publication that he started in 2014 catering to music lovers.
Returning to the word ‘journey’, it especially sparks memories of a trip he undertook in 2011 to Cancun, a Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula bordering the Caribbean Sea, known for its beaches, resorts and nightlife. Slikour was there for a television shoot as part of a group. The trip still stands out in his mind.
He was not blown away by the city initially, but as he visited some of Cancun’s tourism attractions, he began to change his perception.
Ultimately, it proved to be what he calls an amazing rendezvous.
“The people were pretty much speaking Spanish,” he chuckles, recalling being immersed in the local culture.
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“There are a lot of laborers there and the people are beautiful and accommodating, but we never really spoke or interacted with the community.”
Slikour decided to savor the city’s famed nightlife instead and see for himself what all the hype was about.
It all began and ended with tequila, a distilled alcoholic drink and one of Mexico’s most famous exports, made of the blue agave plant from the city of Tequila in Mexico.
“Everything you do there is done with tequila. I don’t drink alcohol, but I had to accept and apply myself because there, they don’t use tomato sauce, they use tequila; I literally had to get into the tequila swag; it’s everything there. Tequila started there,” Slikour says.
Mexico is known for its recurring hurricanes too, which Slikour also got a taste of while there.
“After a few days of getting there, we were warned of a hurricane, and asked to close our doors and windows, and because these things happen regularly, there’s a drill to follow. The hurricane wasn’t a major one but I was excited because I wanted to see it. I had to look through the window,” he says.
The hurricanes are so frequent in Mexico that he likens the precautions taken to lighting a candle during South Africa’s frequent power cuts.
Despite this exhilarating encounter with nature, the real earth-shaking experience for him, however, happened deep inside a cave in the city of Cancun – and also deep inside him.
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“My spiritual [epiphany] was when I went into those caves. You go in there with your self-assurance, claiming you understand everything. Thereon, they tell you where everything comes from and all of a sudden, you become this very small thing in this big ecosystem. It just shows how everything affects everything,” Slikour says.
The tour guides explained how everything inside the cave came from rain, elaborating how it was connected to the core of the earth; which is where they were at the time.
Slikour was in Cancun for two weeks, and also visited the pyramids.
“The Mexicans didn’t have all the mathematics that we have now but the pyramids were built to perfection. It just showed you how forward-thinking they were and how behind we are in as much as we think we are forward; we just have technology. We don’t think the way historic societies used to think,” says Slikour, in deep reflection.
Mexico is a place he would return to, anyday, in a heartbeat.
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.
South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.
Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.
“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”
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Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.
The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.
“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.
Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.
At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.
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Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.
“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.
“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”
It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.
“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.”
Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.
Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.
Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.
“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.
Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.
“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.
Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.
“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.
It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”
The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.
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