Her appearance is an elaborate artwork. Voluminous batik and ‘Adire’ dresses, high and expansive headgears, and artistic accessories, define her attention-grabbing fashion. She is the queen of ‘Adire’, tie-dye fabric. Her presence promotes her art and her personality.
It was an honor well deserved when Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye received the 2021 Art ICONIA Award for her “Outstanding contribution to the development of Art in Nigeria,” on her 70th birthday. The inaugural event in Lagos on May 23 was a celebration of the internationally famous textile artist and painter, and her phenomenal rise to celebrity.
She has been featured on CNN International’s “African Voices,” which tells stories about Africa’s achievers. Her work has been displayed at The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in the US, and she featured in the museum’s 2019 show I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa. Her work is also among the collections of the Gallery of African Art and The British Library, in London.
Demonstrating her passion for promoting African art and culture, especially from Nigeria, she opened the Nike Centre for Art and Culture in Lagos. It is regarded as one of Africa’s largest galleries, and has a collection of about 8,000 artworks. According to her, “on the average we have 50 expatriates here every day and 75 on Saturdays.” The place is an important tourist attraction in the megacity. She also opened an art and culture research Centre in Abuja, and an Aso-Oke weaving Centre in Ogidi-Ijumu, Kogi State, which employs more than 200 women.
It is remarkable that she moved from grass to grace. Born in Ogidi village in present-day Kogi State, she ended her education after primary school. “I worked as a laborer at construction sites, carrying blocks and mixed concrete. I fetched stones, firewood, and water when I came to Osogbo around 1958…I was only seven when I came,” she recounted in an interview.
Her artistic genes proved useful, and elevated her. “I am a fifth generation ‘adire’ maker. My great grandmother lived in Ede where they do ‘adire’…Even my uncle was among the first people to make braids. My great grandmother was a weaver in Jos. My father worked with beads,” she said of her background.
In Osogbo, in present-day Osun State, noted for its rich artistic environment, she developed her creative capacity. Still in her teens, she had her first solo exhibition at the Goethe Institute, Lagos, in 1968. This was a significant juncture in her growth as an artist. She later opened an art gallery in Osogbo.
Davies-Okundaye’s batik and ‘Adire’ are outstanding. Tie-dye fabric is common in Southwest Nigeria, and it takes exceptional creativity for an Adire maker to stand out from the crowd. She explained her signature: “I started using figures and images. When people came, the locals did not buy mine. But white people, whenever they come, they would open mine and buy them. I would explain the imagery on my design to them in Yoruba because then, I could not speak English.” This also explains why her textiles are pricey.
In 2019, the self-taught artist and textile designer received honorary doctorates in Art from Rhodes University, South Africa, and Osun State University, Nigeria. It is a testimony to the power of her art that she attracted the attention of academia. It is noteworthy that, for more than two decades, she has taught traditional textile techniques at workshops in Europe and America.
Notably, her contribution to the development of art in Nigeria includes her empowerment programmes aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged women in the country through art. She teaches rural women in Southwest Nigeria tie-dye methods, free of charge, to perpetuate the tradition and enrich their lives.
Also, she remarkably helped to transform the lives of thousands of Nigerian female sex workers in Italy by teaching them how to produce art for a living. This earned her recognition from the United Nations (UN).
There is no doubt about Davies-Okundaye’s cultural significance. She is both a promoter and populariser of traditional art in the modern world. Her work is her voice. We wish her many happy returns.
Source: The Nation Editorial of Friday, 28th May 2021.