Renowned African artist and activist Chief Dr Nike Davies-Okundaye on empowering women through Nigerian art

What can a woman born into a poor family achieve in her life? A lot and more, as testified by renowned African artist and activist Chief Dr. Nike Davies-Okundaye

By Asha Iyer Kumar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Fri 1 Dec 2023, 4:51 PM

Patriarchy is an unyielding word. It has connotations that have wrecked lives of countless women with its intractable norms. We live in a world where women are judged by the pettiest standards there can be and their individuality robbed by male supremacy; but with every instance of oppression and violation, a new voice arises to haul up the fallen lives from the ashes of their misery.

Chief Dr Nike Davies-Okundaye’s is one such dominant voice that emerged from the muffles of thousands of Nigerian women who had resigned to a life of suffering and male domination. Her art was her artillery, and the grit she displayed in the face of adversity was the propellent. At 72 and with five decades of artistry behind her, she is now Mama Nike, a mother to all female artists in Nigeria. She is a lighthouse to them, navigating their boats out of poverty and wretchedness caused by a long tradition of subjugation.

Mama Nike, best known for her cloth work and embroidery pieces employing the traditional Yoruba batik and textile designing techniques, and other handwork is an artist turned activist. She is the owner of Nike Art Gallery, the largest of its kind in West Africa.

Her initiation into traditional Nigerian art came in early childhood from her great grandmother who taught her the intricacies of weaving and dyeing. A difficult upbringing mired in poverty and an adult life caught in a polygamous marriage elevated what was a mere passion to a purpose. “I was one of 15 wives. I have seen the suffering in that polygamous life, and I didn’t want other women who are in a similar situation to suffer. So when I got my first breakthrough to go to America in 1974, I decided that if my work can take me this far then I am going to share my experience and teach other women how to use their traditional handwork to become independent.”

Her inspiring life story began at the age of six when she lost her mother and then her grandmother at seven. “I didn’t know where my life was going with my minimal education and the poverty, but today my handwork has taken me to a greater point and that is what I am sharing with my co-wives and other colleagues. All of us are now able to train our children, send them to school and have a better life, and we are happy together,” she elucidates.

Empowerment doesn’t come from merely clamouring for it. It comes when the oppressed show the determination to break the shackles and step into a world where opportunities abound, armed with their skills and resources. And that is precisely what Mama Nike accomplished with her expertise in the Indigo textile art that is fast gaining admiration and approval among fashion aficionados across the globe. It is a rare amalgam of a beautiful craft and a clear-cut vision to revive a dying art form for a cause that is now very close to many female hearts – independence – and Mama Nike makes no bones about her intention.

Traditionally, women who indulged in the art form were allowed only to stamp a symbol on their creations, but Mama Nike introduced the practice of the artists signing their names on the hand-painted textile, instilling not only a sense of pride in the artists but also giving them due recognition for their talent. Stressing the need to claim their credit, she recalls an instance when she found her grandmother’s work in London’s Victoria Albert Museum where she recognised her symbol but was at pains to convince people that it belonged to her because there was no name. “But now I insist that the artists put their names so their work can be found by people,” she says.

Mama Nike is full of love and commitment for her textile designs and she is acutely aware of its significance to the hundreds of women she continues to train. Her passion is mirrored in the indigo hues that is lavishly used in creating the striking tied and dyed marvels. ‘It is the colour of love,” she reiterates. “In Nigeria when one gets married, they wear indigo, and it is dyed in organic colour without any chemicals.” The complex dyeing process that requires great expertise brings out beautiful blue and white patterns that is unique to West Africa but has now become a high fashion choice in world markets.

The designs and patterns that Mama Nike depicts in her work are reflective of her life experiences, and much of her inspiration comes from “what is going on in the society, especially with regard to women. In one of my works, I have depicted the protesting Chibok mothers whose daughters were abducted by Boko Haram. I put their faces in my drawing to let people know what they are going through.”

Like in all other indigenous craft forms around the world that are facing a slow death thanks to technological advancement, the vibrant African is also at the risk of fading out. “The time it takes for a piece of fabric is two to three months. An embroidered cloth takes up to six months. It is time-consuming. But I am doing it because of my interest and passion, and I am passing this tradition to future generations.”

She has four training centres in Nigeria, goes to other African countries to teach and she has also trained nearly 5000 sex workers in Italy and turned around the lives of about 3000 of them over a period of six years. Clearly, her aim is to give a voice and a vocation to countless women who are looking to break the barriers, which she happily proclaims she has achieved, although it wasn’t easy. The resistance she initially faced had her arrested by police many times and it was an interesting twist in her personal life that ended the struggle with authorities.

“I am thankful to God that I have been able to give a voice to women who needed it. Initially, I would be taken away by the police because I was empowering women to make money, which they wouldn’t give to their husbands, and the women were not listening to them and were not under their control. The husbands would lodge complaints. Then one of the policemen wanted to marry me. That’s how I got the breakthrough. Now the police cannot arrest me because I am married to their boss,” Mama Nike says with a triumphant, child-like laughter.

Mama Mike’s success story isn’t one of privileges handed down to her. It is the outcome of years of commitment and it traces a series of experiences that include running away from home at 15 to evade a marriage to a sixty-year-old man; starting her first training centre in 1967 under a tree; deciding to break herself free from the fetters of a patriarchal society placed on her; finding her breakthrough after she visited America and moving from place to place after being hounded, before she finally opened her five-storey gallery in Lagos in 2008 to become a luminary in her native Nigeria.

She is not just a celebrated ambassador of African art but a beacon that dispelled darkness from the lives of numerous women caught in the patriarchal clutch. To this icon who set many free with Adire, indigo isn’t just a colour of love; it is also the symbol of liberation. In a world that chooses to undermine women’s efforts, she stands tall, not just with her majestic headdress and colourful costumes, but also with her charismatic persona.

For those looking to add a splash of the exclusive Yoruba blue to their wardrobe, here’s an update - Chief Nike’s brand Africa Art is coming to Dubai in 2024.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


More news from Lifestyle