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.