Chief Nike Davis-Okundaye is one of the most extraordinary women I have ever met. Her humility and gentle nature is soul stirring and underpinned by a strong sense of inner strength. She is a fierce defender and custodian of her culture and a great messenger of spirit through art. We meet in the plush exhibition room at the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) which is hosting her latest exhibition, The Power of One Woman.
Born in 1951 into a family of creatives & artists, Chief Nike was able to share her work to a global audience, become a pioneer of African art and go on to teach students around the world the classic methods of communication through traditional pattern methods.
I understand your first gallery was in your bedroom, how did that work?
Well there were three/four of us, living in one bedroom, one day I said we should have a shop. They said, ‘we have no money, how are we going to have a shop?’ I said this is our shop! So we slept on a mat [and] when we woke up, I would clean the room and all the Batik and the Adire [cloth materials] – fold it and display it like how it is done in the market. I [then] started training colleagues of mine when I saw that reverend sisters were now buying my work. Then I realised this can bring money, then my work was taken to New York – eventually the museum of Natural History, and it was selling. I decided to teach other people, and that is how I started teaching. I called it African Shop No 1. My breakthrough was in 1974 when I was invited to America.
Tell me about America…
I went to Maine to teach, but the first place was New York. The Metropolitan, Guggenheim, Museum of Natural Art History; the Tribal Art Gallery held our exhibitions. I saw how they hung their artwork. I said I would love to learn how it works, they advised on how to stretch and frame the work. So when I got home I had to open a gallery. We were the first to open a gallery in Oshogun.
You were born into a very artistic family. How were able to take your art to the next level?
In those days, the way they passed education on to kids is, whatever you do, you teach your children. When I had finished primary six, I said to myself, this thing that my great grandmother taught me let me make use of it, package myself and do the work well. When I was chosen to go to USA and teach; arriving there, I saw life through art. I decided to use this opportunity to teach other people in different countries in Africa; not only my country. That is how I was able to go to Zimbabwe, Ghana – I used to go to Ghana and Senegal. There was an organisation from Germany who sent women from Ghana, Uganda – they would pay their airfare to Nigeria to come and learn the skills … I saw it was working well, some of the women were able to empower themselves and go back to their countries to teach other people to learn, training the trainers and so on and then it continued worldwide. We just came from the exhibition at the British Library. I was so happy our work was included and very thankful. I was thanking Bendu – director of GAFRA, for getting our work in the British Library, it is not easy.
So it wasn’t a monetary thing for you, more about your passion for sharing art?
Yes. Yes. It’s just a passion. If I can suffer and be able to make a living through art and use my hand… There are a lot of hardworking people, if they can get that opportunity they will be able to make a living through art.
I learned you joined a travelling theatre, did your parents support that decision?
I had to run away. When I was fourteen my father had no money, he was a poor artist too. He wanted to marry me to a minister who already had four wives. So I had to run away and go and join the travelling theatre. When I joined them I had to design their fabric in Adire. We performed; if we make money we eat, if we don’t, we pack up and carry ourselves to the next village. We carried our load in a suitcase – when we say suitcase, it’s an iron box. So we trekked from one village to another. I was with them for six months and I learned so much.
Do you think young people of today have that spirit to really persevere?
What made me carry on is that I had nobody to go back to. The other thing is patience. I said if I can use the opportunity, even though it’s hard, it’s tough… I must have patience because in future it will be useful for me.
I’ve noticed you work with wood, beads, and with textiles. Which is your favourite method of expressing your art?
Communication through the pattern of a fabric. A lot of the women, they cannot express their feelings to the government; in those days’ people communicated with their fabric. So if you like the government, you make your head-tie in a certain way, so the government will say ‘all the females are supporting me’. If you don’t like the government you will wear a design called ‘mind your own business’ and even the head-tie you wear or the hairstyle you wear…
It’s a language…
You use it to talk. Women are very powerful. When a woman turns their back to any government, the government cannot succeed. The same with the King. They asked the women to pay tax. The house mother was one of the women who lead a group of women who said, ‘no, after we do the work for our husbands, our husbands will pay tax? We are not going to pay tax.’ The women went with their swordsticks to the palace and chased the King away. So the pattern of the fabric, all these designs you are seeing, it speaks. For example, water, water has no enemy. When you put these designs on your fabric, they know you are saying. I have no enemy. There is a pattern called ‘Junction’, so when you wear the junction you are telling them meet me at the junction of maybe… Buckingham Palace (laughs).
I have heard of traditional hair being styled as a form of communication but I didn’t know about the fabric as well…
For example, Ghana has their symbols in the curriculum; winning independence before Nigeria. We in Nigeria have to do something to make sure we don’t lose our heritage, our culture. That is why my brother and I decided to put it in the paintings, so people can have it on their wall and remember those patterns. When you are in love with a man or a man is in love with you, he wears the pattern of a gecko. A gecko is saying, ‘no matter how small the house is, always find a room in your house’. So the people who put the gecko on the fabric, they are telling the men they love, ‘find me a room in your heart, find me a room in your life; find me a room in your house.’
Wow, many of us do not understand this…
We are missing all these patterns and we need to continue it in order to learn more about our heritage.
It’s very interesting to hear about the power that women had in those days to change things.
In those days’ women were the controllers of money; the market women. Then, when it comes to power, women are deities. In those days we had no church, we would go to a shrine. A woman may be the Osun – which is the Osun deities, but a man is under her. Nevertheless, when they get home, as husband and wife, the man can be powerful again. When it comes to Olokun, it’s woman, Osun; it’s a woman, Oya, Moremi… all these Gods, all these deities, they are powerful women. That is why anybody that comes to this world, they come through women. So when women are naked, no man is allowed to look at them. It’s an oath. So when they get upset, they will go to the palace naked and everybody will run! (laughs). Once they strip like that, the person cannot last, they will run.
At the moment there are a lot foreign imports of African textiles; manufacturing copies. What can we do to keep the production at home and protect our culture?
The thing we can do is found a museum or more create more craft villages. The old things are taken out, but the artists are still producing. You will discover a lot of young artists who are still doing a great job. The more you run workshops, the more you find these people. So the old artefacts from the Benin palace are taken away, but the artists are creating. Even if it is set up in abandoned houses, try to open a centre and get people to come, the creativity never ends. In Nigeria, they are using the pure water bags; people are turning trash to treasure. Same thing in Ghana, Ghana has a lot of Kente, the silk ones. They can copy in China with cotton, but Ghana still has their silk. This can be passed onto another generation to weave silk. These people can copy it but they will not take away the knowledge.
You have great understanding of Nigerian spirituality, it is clear you are very in touch with who you are, you have true sense of identity. I read that you are inspired by your dreams. When did you start to recognise that these dreams were messages of art?
Thank you. When I was about seven or eight, I always saw myself flying, like a bird. I would say to myself, where am I flying to? When I dreamed I would tell my father, because my mother passed when I was six years old. My father would say, ‘when you dream you are flying, maybe you are going to fly somewhere,’ I said I have no wings (laughs). He said, ‘they are balloons,’ – he meant planes! He said, ‘that balloon has wings like a bird, you are going to go inside and you will fly somewhere.’ So I realised my dreams were coming true when I moved to Oshobun. I went to the Osun river, I got there around eleven and didn’t go till four in the morning. I slept away.
You stayed there sleeping?
I stayed there in the forest. I dreamed, and then I started to realise that I had to put it into a drawing. I started to see that my dreams were not ordinary dreams, there was something behind them. A lot of people are more powerful than they think, but they do not know it. They cannot discover themselves. So whenever I have a dream like that, I would go to elderly people and say, ‘what do you think of this dream?’ If you dreamed of water, it means you will have a long life. If the water is muddy and you are sleeping in it, it is no good. All this, the elders will tell you. If you see a strong animal who is trying to attack you and escape, it’s an enemy that will not be able to conquer you. So there is so much you can learn from dreams.
So it was your elders who translated the dreams for you?
Yes, I always asked them. There are even books written on dreams, so when you have a dream you can find a translation.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring artist?
Young people who are interested in this type of art or talent, package yourself in a nice way once you know you are good in one thing. Have focus, follow your heart and don’t worry about what parents say. You will get to where you are going. Our parents always say, oh go and become a doctor; go and become a lawyer. However, when they see you in the newspaper, they will now say, eiii, this is my child, s/he’s in the newspaper! So they will start to release that pressure they have put on you. Follow your heart, do it well and have focus.
You have an amazing story, thank you for sharing it with us.
The Power of One Woman featuring Photographs by Joanna Lipper is on at the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) from the 10th December until 6th February 2016. Find out more via the GAFRA website.
See more of Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye’s work via her website