Nike Davies-Okundaye showed an independent state of mind early on in life. At the age of 14, she ran away from home to avoid being married off by her father and joined a Yoruba theatre troupe instead.
With little formal education but steeped in artisanal skills learned at her grandmother’s knee, Nike followed the call of her culture and within a few years was beginning to turn heads with her dynamic artwork.
Five decades on, she is recognised internationally as one of Nigeria’s foremost artists and designers, credited with spurring the revival of traditional textile production in the country through her workshops and training programmes, aimed in particular at women. Like her, they can achieve independence through art, she says.
It is no surprise, then, that what she calls “feminine power” figures prominently in a retrospective exhibition of her output at the Gallery of African Art in London, including two striking works, Singing for Joy (2003) and Women of Honour (2005). Ranging from early pen and ink works to intricate watercolours and dazzling fabrics, The Power of One Woman champions, too, Yoruba culture and symbolism.
The exhibition also features large-scale images by the US photographer and filmmaker Joanna Lipper showing the artist at work and in the Sacred Grove of Osun-Osogbo. Nike is dressed throughout in adire, the indigo-dyed cloth produced in the Yoruba heartland of southwest Nigeria that, together with batik, she has managed to elevate into an art form. The symbols and patterns on the cloth, even the colour, all embody meaning.
For example, the gekko motif: ‘Gekko [means] no matter how small the house is, find me a room in your house,’ explained Nike during her recent visit to London. ‘So if a man wears this pattern [while calling on a woman], he is saying to a woman find me a room in your heart.’
‘And when you are in love… you will just wear an indigo colour.’
As one might expect from her backstory, Nike Davies-Okundaye cuts a larger than life figure, full of stories and easy laughter. Born into a family of traditional artisans in Ogidi-Ijumu, Kogi State in 1951, her skills were nurtured at a young age, in particular by her grandmother and great grandmother, both cloth weavers. She spent the early part of her life in Osogbo, a major centre for art and culture, where the Sacred Grove is today a World Heritage site. It was here that she was informally trained in indigo dying and adire production.
Her international exposure began in 1968 when she had an exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Lagos, and in 1974 she was one of 10 African artists and the only woman invited to go on a teaching tour of the US. As a result of the interest in her work, she made it her mission to open a gallery in Lagos upon her return ‘so that every artist in my country has a voice.’ as well as make the transition from fabric to paper.
Today, with an impressive roll call of international exhibitions to her name, she is also the owner of the largest art gallery in West Africa, compromising more than 7,000 works and runs four centres, which offer free training to artists in visual, musical and the performing arts. These she funds from the sale of her art work, her ‘own little contribution,’ she says, to preserving Nigeria’s cultural heritage, which she fears would otherwise die out.
After opening the first in Osogbo with 20 female students, she recalled the day she was visited by a police officer following complaints by irate husbands. ‘When they see the women are learning, they send police to arrest me. Why should you teach this woman who will be my slave for ever to be independent?’
However, far from incurring the wrath of the law, she found love, eventually marrying the police officer sent to arrest her. Such life experiences as these are embodied in her work, so that every picture and every fabric tells a story.
Due to popular demand Nike Davies-Okundaye, The Power Of One Woman, featuring photographs by Joanna Lipper, has been extended to February 11 at the Gallery of African Art, Albemarle St, London W1S 4JL