Interviews, Life Style

‘How I changed the lives of 3000 Nigerian prostitutes in Italy’ – NIKE OKUNDAYE

Chief (Mrs.) Nike Okundaye, popularly known as Mama Nike is an accomplished professional artist; a painter, a textile artist, weaver and the owner of Nike Art Galleries with centres in Lagos, Osogbo, Ogidi-Ijumu and Abuja.
Born on May 23, 1951, at a very quiet and hilly village of Ogidi-Ijumu in Kogi State, the multi-talented lady was a stage dancer in her early life. She later became an actress featuring as a lead in a local Yoruba film, entitled, Ayaba. Also, she has also featured in many documentary films, including Kindred Spirits, sponsored and produced by Smith Sonia Museum in Washington DC and a CNN feature decomentary film, African Voices.
Today, Mama Nike is an accomplished and a rare international icon of the arts. In this interview with ENCOMIUM Weekly held at her gallery in Victoria Island, Lagos, she spoke about issues relating to arts, growing up, family and more important, how she managed to change the lives of over 3000 Nigerian prostitutes in Italy…

Chief (Mrs.) Nike Okundaye

Chief (Mrs.) Nike Okundaye

Let’s talk about your growing up. How was it growing up in Osogbo?
Most people think I am from Osogbo or Abeokuta, but as a matter of fact, I am from Kogi. I lived in Osogbo all my life. I was brought to Osogbo at six. So, Osogbo is my second home. And God has been kind to me because when I got to Osogbo, I didn’t even know anything called money. I went to Osun deity to pray. As a little girl, I told Osun: “you see me and you know me; I have no mother, I want you to look after me. This is what I want to become.” I was 10 then. I said if I become great, I will always talk about you. Osun is like going to church. It’s a traditional heritage place. They don’t kill cows, humans or chickens there. It’s just a place where people pray. I’m Catholic, I fast during the Lent season and go to church every Sunday. It’s just the same way the Oba of Osun is a Muslim, he observes every prayer session in Islam. But we have to respect our culture.
How did you have your first breakthrough as an artist?
In 1974, the American government wanted to pick some artists from Africa, specifically from 54 African countries and I think by then, there were just 50 African countries. So, after their research, all the people they got were all men. They began to worry that, are there no female artists in Africa? They told them the lady they could find was Ladi Kwali and she was a potter. To the Americans, pottery was just a craft. And then they had me, I worked on textile which was also a craft to them.
They said no, they didn’t want anything craft. They later thought that the people they were staging the programme for, African-Americans were coming to learn about their cultures, their backgrounds and so on. So, these are also some form of arts from Africa and that was why they had to take us along. One of my friends worked at the Museum of Natural History. She was the one who recommended me to the principal of the school. And they came to look for me in Osogbo. We were using feathers to paint adire. Just two and half yards of adire takes one week to complete. So, I did five yards and sent to them in Osogbo where they had come to look for me. Going to America was my breakthrough.
It was when I got there that I realised that handiwork can take one to a great height. So, I was teaching women how to make aso-oke, pottery, because I’d learnt all these crafts little by little as I had no money to continue my education when I finished Primary Six. My mother died and my father was a very poor man, he was a farmer, basket weaver and village musician. My great grandmother taught me everything I mastered then. I was abundantly gifted with these crafts that I taught many of my colleagues and neighbours. My first husband married 15 wives and I was still able to stand out of the pack because of my handiwork.
Why didn’t you consider staying back overseas considering the opportunities you had?
I have always loved Nigeria. I said to myself, even if I stayed back in the US, what was I going to be telling them? I didn’t know how to speak a word of English. So, my little knowledge of spoken English was what I picked from interacting with people like you.
I remember if I had to interpret my works to them there, I would say, “This is my try” when I intended to say “these are my works”. They were even teaching me how to speak some English because I didn’t know how to explain the concept of a traditional drum called bata. I would say, bata prapapapa and they would say, no, say drum. I was never shy to tell them what I didn’t know.
They even asked me what kind of snake I liked most and I told them the python was my favourite. They were shocked. But I meant what I said because in my village there wasn’t even beef; you would kill a snake and eat. If you killed a rat, you’d eat. There was no electricity in the small village.
There is impression that people that do this kind of work are diabolical. How would you separate the two?
Yes, I know some people still believe that most artists’ works are diabolical. But let me explain what many don’t know. We have different types of groups of these craftsmen in Osogbo, Yaba, Zaria and so on. We artists from Osogbo are self-taught, we didn’t go to school to learn the art. When Ulli Bieir and Susan Wenger came to Osogbo, they formed Osogbo School of Arts and that is how Osogbo artists started to reign. These Germans were the first to write a book on the art from Osogbo and that is why Osogbo artists are very popular today.
There are so many galleries in Lagos but yours remains the most patronised. Tell us how you have been able to run this gallery successfully?
There are over 40 galleries in Lagos. What stands out Nike Art Gallery is that I’m an artist. It’s just like people who write books on polygamy and have never married many wives or women who had never had senior or junior partners in a polygamous family, where would the person find adequate experience to tell the story of polygamy? I know the feelings of an average artist and what it takes to put something on the board.
And I know what it requires to get inspired before they would put anything sensible on the board. That is why I’m able to look after their works for them. Some people will open a gallery today and in two years, they close it.
I told you that my first gallery was in 1968. And I haven’t even done a single anniversary; rather I would do it in a proper way to give the Nigerian artists a voice. More so, what I can do to help artists in my capacity is to resound the quintessential creativity of our artists to the government. Though, I don’t partner the Lagos State Government, just by verbal referrals, no single signpost, people from different ministries storm here. If there hadn’t been Ebola outbreak, on the average we have 50 expatriates here every day and 75 on Saturdays.
What do you look out for in art works that are not originally yours before you accept them for sale?
I can see the artists’ future by looking at his works. I know the ones that can become a huge success in two or three years. There’s one artist whose works are conspicuously displayed here now. His name is Romanus, but he’s popularly called Rom. He’s one of our renowned artists today in Nigeria who has made it to the top. He has his own house, a big studio. He also has another house yet to be completed. We also have the President of the Artists’ Guild, Dotun; he heads over 1000 artists.
Away from art, tell us how you enjoyed your youthful age?

Chief (Mrs.) Nike Okundaye

Chief (Mrs.) Nike Okundaye

You won’t believe that a better part of my life has been spent working. I never stopped working. Even in the early hours of today, I was obsessed with what we should be doing for a young artist, Olawunmi’s exhibition. The young woman would come here, sit down and imagine things to put together. Olawunmi is self-taught, before you can get inspiration, you have to look at other artists’ works. From there, you can now start and carve your own niche.
I got back from a party at 1.00am and by 5.00am, I woke up to cook for my husband. All my life has been hard work. I just enjoy it because I don’t fall sick. Today, my first son has three masters degrees. I don’t blame God that I didn’t have formal education, I thank God that I’ve given what I don’t have to my children as their inheritance. My daughter who used to work with me here is doing her masters programme at the moment. I have four girls and two boys. One of my sons also has two masters degrees already. They have their own houses and families today.
What have you done to sustain the legacy you have built over the years?
I already have in mind that I cannot be here forever and that is why I have a foundation which involves some people who are into arts. It has its board of directors, so if anything happens to me today, Nike Art Gallery will continue. The Nike Art Foundation is solid enough.
You have been recognised globally. Which of the awards did you cherish most?
It’s actually the one given to me in Italy. They gave me a medal to go with the plaque. I cherish this one greatly because in Torino, Italy, they had five thousand prostitutes who are Nigerians and they are all from Edo state. And when they saw that there was nothing they could do to tackle that menace, they went to surf the internet because they know that Nigerian women mostly work with their hands.
How come these ones won’t stop prostituting? They invited me, I got there and spoke to these young women. I told them I couldn’t do it alone. I needed the support of the then first lady of Edo State, Eki Igbinedion. We had to do it elegantly. And it was so bad that 39 of our girls were killed in three months.
So, I had to get people to start training them how to do adire. All these fabrics you’re wearing, it’s just a little design that goes into it and they send the rest to Holland, Spain and so on. That was the understanding the Italian Embassy had and they bought the girls computers to be designing and sending to other parts of the country for processing. It’s less difficult than ours where we have to dye it the natural way and so on.
After six years, that was how I managed to change the lives of 3,000 Nigerian girls. That was where this award came from. I leave my people to continue teaching them there and I just visit them for a month and return home.

– RASHEED ABUBAKAR

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