Empowering the less privileged cadre of the society via the creative sector has been personified by Nike Davies-Okundaye over the last two decades of her nearly 40 years career as an art and culture professional.
Davies-Okundaye who had built a dual personality of being a visual and performing artist is renowned more for her exploits in the Yoruba native fabrics, adire – one of Africa’s biggest exports of modern and contemporary times to the West. Having acquired the skills through informal training from her native OgidiIjumu, Kogi State as a young girl and later had the privilege of participating in several workshops organized by American expatriates, Davies Okundaye understands the value of skill acquisition in grassroots empowerment.
From her expansive Nike Art Centre in Lekki, Lagos as well as the other outlets, young culture enthusiasts are trained, regularly, in the making of adire and crafts as well as in the performing arts.
In an encounter, recently, with Western Post, she spoke on the strength of art as tool in job creation. Okundaye whose Nike Art business is headquartered in Osogbo and has branches in Lagos and Abuja, argued that art was a major industry as far back as the ancient Yoruba era. “Art is an industry. We should recall that art was a major industry for the people in the ancient era up till the period when my generation was growing up.”
She explained why Osogbo is the headquarters of her business: ‘‘When I opened a workshop in Osogbo, I used to take the women to Lagos to sell their works. But I realised that some of the women were nursing mothers who would not like to lose their clients. I then, opened a gallery for the women so that everyday, they choose among themselves and stand in twos to sell their work at the galleries. The galleries are not for me to make profit, but to empower these women to gainful employment. I actually designed it such that the women do not need to hawk their work like I used to do early in my career.”
The centres, she said, service specific audience. For instance, the Kogi outlet is dedicated to women, the one in Abuja is for youths and while another one in Kwari village trains women in indigo dying. She recalled how the Abuja gallery started, “The then American Ambassador to Nigeria, Howard Jeter and about eight others came to my home in Osogbo and were impressed with what I was doing with the people. Howard then advised me to go to Abuja and set up a centre. He also suggested that I should meet the the Minister of FCT, El-Rufai for land to start the business.”
It was an instant success in Abuja. “When I started the workshop in Abuja, the wives of the ambassadors were the first set of people that attended, I then invited El-Rufai’s wife to the gallery with the wife of the German President.”
She attributed the buoyancy of the creative sector then to the fact that, the royal families encouraged their people to use art as decorations and embroideries by “patronizing artists.” More importantly, the “royal fathers also give art and crafts to visitors.” She cited her family’s ancestral business in adire as an example. ‘‘I am sixth in the generation of adire artists. My great grandmother was the head of all the craft women in her village.”
And for those who argue that art thrived then because monotheist religions were not as active as they are today, Davies-Okundaye has a totally different view. “When I started with adire, church was one of my main outlets.” She disclosed that “the church then uses adire to decorate the alter.”
The church, she recalled, was like a showroom for her as “people loved my work and started demanding that I produce such for them.”
Born May 23, 1951, Davies-Okundaye was six when she started as an apprentice, training in the making of adire. In 1974, she was one of the beneficiaries of a U.S government-organised workshops for selected artists from Africa, who visited 50 states in the country for cultural exchange.
With regular churning out of artists from across Nike art centres, the founder was more convinced that “Art cannot be removed from the economy of the country.”
She is a typical example of how to raise wealth from grassroots creativity. She began her art business with a gallery “in 1968 inside my room.”
Gradually, the space could not contain patronage, and had to expand to the living room in 1970. It kept expanding and in 1972, “we then moved to a big gallery, which was one big hall. Then, we had all the works there because I used to come to Lagos to hawk my works at the beach.’’
Although Lagos had the largest concentration of art lovers, her starting point for the gallery business, Osogbo, she argued, could not be excluded from the entrepreneurship side of the creative business.
“Later, clients started to come from Lagos to buy my works in Osogbo. In Lagos, I met more art collectors like YemisiShyllon. I also met Olisa Bu, who was the then Chairman of UBA.”
In Lagos, the gallery business has grown beyond her imagination. “We have a lot of works directly from the artists. We have more than 7,000 works in the gallery, from different parts of Nigeria.”
Still on skill acquisition, Davies-Okundaye stressed that she trains people, particularly the youths in Osogbo, Ogidi and Lagos, specifically “to start from embroidery of the Adire pattern.” Some of the trainees, she disclosed are from schools abroad. “Some of them finished their education in the U.S. and Malaysia where they learnt Batik. One of the trainees disclosed how she was told that learning batik textile without coming to Nigeria, would not be a complete study.”
She has extended her skill acquisition programme to as far as Italy to rescue Nigerian women from prostitution. “Italian government engaged me to change the Nigerian girls that were into prostitution. Most of those prostitutes were all from Benin City. We thought of changing their lives by teaching them design in different forms, not only Indigo because they could not get Indigo in Italy. We train them in adire (Yoruba) and Uli design from Eastern Nigeria. These designs are worked on linen and they are selling it to different countries more for the African designs.”
At the end of the project, an army of former prostitute has been rehabilitated into gainful employment. “We were able to reform 3,000 young Nigerian women who were former prostitutes, particularly from Edo State, all working in Italy.”
For her effort, Davies-Okundaye was recognized and honoured by the Italian government with an award. “The Italian President said they should give me an award in my own country. The award was signed by him and sent to Abuja in Nigeria where I received it.”
ONE unique character that defines Nike’s artistic personality is the ability to situate an ancient culture in the heart of a modern city. And visitor to any of her centers will warmly encounter a world that moves easily between talking drums and the Internet. Whether one is a specialist in the arts or merely interested in finding new forms of art, the Nike Centre offers one more than this opportunity.
For over two decades, she has attended workshops in both the United States and Europe where she gave lectures on traditional Nigerian textiles. In fact, she is known today for her colourful batik and paintings that appeals to modernity.
As a master in the art of weaving and dying, humility has continued to define her career progress as she is always conscious of her upbringing amidst the traditional weaving and dying practiced in her native village of Ogidi in Kogi State. Her cultural revival in the art and craft has launched her fame beyond the borders of the country. At Nike Centre, you can visit the world of the Yoruba, to explore a culture that has flourished in western Nigeria for more than 1000 years.
On offer at the centres are materials such as adire, batik, indigo, beadwork, painting, embroidery, metal work, while services such as weaving, carving and drumming are passed on to apprentices.
Indeed, the Nike Centre for Arts and Culture gives you an opportunity to see Nigerian art in new forms and style. It is also a place where one can spend his /her day and time visiting museums, galleries, and traditional markets as well as studying the techniques used by the Yoruba craftsmen and artists.