Legendary Nigerian Arts Connoisseur, Chief Nike Okundaye, is the CEO of the largest art centre in Africa – ‘Nike Art Gallery. Her passion for promoting, educating and exporting Nigerian arts and culture to the world is well known. The avid curator and textile designer speaks with MILLICENT AREBUN ONUOHA speaks on her beginning, gallery, arts and culture
How did your childhood experiences affect your chosen career?
I was born into the arts. My father was a craftsman while my mum was a weaver. I lost my mum at the age of six, and was reared up by my grandmother. She was into crafts and it was only natural for her to pass that knowledge and informal education down to me. I learnt a lot from my great grand-mother whom I also had to live with at intervals. Back then, it was part of the custom and tradition to give your first daughter to your grandmother or great grandmother so she could take care of them and also assist them with domestic chores. I was given to my great-grandmother who was a leader of the female crafts association then.
I had to do so many odd jobs just to pay my fees through primary school. I carried stone, fetched water and did other menial jobs so I could raise 15 shillings for my fees quarterly. After my primary school I couldn’t take my education further because I couldn’t raise the fees. I braced up myself, since there was no source of income, I had to package what I knew how to do which was “Adire.”
What is Adire?
Adire is the work of the Yoruba women from western Nigeria while those from the northern part “do tie and dye” and those from Cross River do stitching. I went about my business gradually as a child, hawking ‘adire’ and earning a living for myself. However, the big blow came when my father wanted to marry me off at the age of 14. I ran away from home later and joined a travelling theatre. Fast forward a few years and I finally had my own theatre group but my love for crafts got the better part of me, so I went back to making ‘adire’ again.
My apartment was my workshop and studio where people came to. I started my art work in Osogbo in 1968 in my bedroom. That was my first shop. I called it Africa Shop, it was a room of three occupants, when we woke up I would put mat on the floor and arrange our fabrics on it. When people came to see our work from Lagos I would show it to them.
You have been featured in both local and international media, at what point in your career did you start getting these recognitions?
We started getting media recognition when a few of us were selected from Africa in 1974 to teach Arts in the United States. It was an opportunity to teach them what was ours, indigenous and African. We were a group of 10 and I was the only woman, It was an eye opener for me because we were able to impact them with arts from Nigeria, Tanzania and different parts of Africa. We were taken to several galleries and museums and I was thrilled. It gave me the impetus to do my crafts better and professionally. Previously all I did was just nail the pieces to the wall.
Several foreign universities have benefited immensely from your wealth of experience. Have Nigerian universities done the same?
As I said earlier, I started going internationally to exhibit my works as far back in 1973. I have been to so many schools abroad impacting knowledge, doing workshop, talks, lectures and so on, so many foreign institutes have benefited from my knowledge and God given talent. However, it is a bit different here because institutions in Nigeria do not lay so much emphasis on arts. We pay attention to foreign ideas and way of life at the expense of our own. Nigerians are very intelligent and highly resourceful, and we should be able to put things together using our own local resources and not wait for foreigners to do that for us. I am of the opinion that we should be able to handle our resources without bringing foreign experts to teach us.
How would you describe Nigerians’ reception to arts in the past decade?
I think the window is opening wider. Looking at Nigeria 15 years ago and looking at us now, it’s obvious Nigerian youths are now embracing their art and cultural heritage more. When our youths travel abroad and see what other countries have benefitted from arts, they also try to take it more seriously.
How has piracy affected the growth and quality of the Nigerian arts and crafts sector?
Piracy is terrible in this country and the government has to take a strong stance with it before it becomes worse. Even here at the gallery, when we say taking close-up pictures of our art works is prohibited, some people still sneak in to take pictures for the purpose of pirating it. Over time, we have had to put so many laws in place to prevent this. It is sad that intellectual properties are suffering because of piracy.
What needs to be done to further promote the arts sector?
Recently one or two auctions houses have been established and they have auctioned publicly which is a good step. I think it could be better if there are more auctions houses. One thing the government has to do is to create an enabling environment for visual arts to grow. Visual arts should also be made a convertible instrument of exchange even in the banks. Nike art gallery promotes exclusively Nigerian works and if an artist has an artwork that is worth selling they bring it here. Sometime we buy it outright while at other times they drop it and come back after six months in the event of no sale. By doing this, we tend to promote the upcoming artist more than those who are already established. We want the younger community to get exposed to it by exhibiting it for people to see and buy. The artwork in our galleries are 100 per cent Nigeria, there are no foreign art works in our gallery.
What challenges come with running an art centre of this nature in Nigeria?
Our challenges so far have been monetary and structural. We need constant power supply to keep the centre running. In regards to monetary challenge, it is difficult to get loan from banks to develop arts in Nigeria. The government has not made it possible to use art in exchange for money. However, Nike Art Gallery has tried over the years to combat these challenges by travelling overseas to deliver talk shows, lectures and more so as to get money to maintain the gallery.
Nike art gallery’s future project is to make more exhibitions for upcoming artists and also run workshop for the rural women who have been left behind. The focus is to try to develop the social, economic and political empowerment of these women.
Where do we see Nike Art Centre in the next decade?
Our intention is to have our children take over from us.