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Women of power and “kindred spirits”

Arts and Culture

Women of power and “kindred spirits”

The meeting of Nigerian veteran artist Nike Davies-Okundaye and Liberian-born Bendu Cooper, owner and director of the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) in London, was according to Nike, a meeting of “kindred spirits”. They explain why to Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo.

It is evident that the two women have mutual respect for each other, and it is this respect, and their joint passion for African art which has brought about the new exhibition at GAFRA, entitled Nike Davies Okundaye, the Power of One Woman, showcasing early pen and ink works, delicate watercolours, jewellery and Adire textiles – a rich body of work from a consistent and dedicated practice which spans over 40 years. This exhibition also showcases never-before-seen photographs by Joanna Lipper, revealing new, groundbreaking dimensions of Nike’s multi-faceted identity as a Yoruba Chief, daughter, mother, wife, artist, teacher, and social entrepreneur.

“The idea for the exhibition came along as we have a work of Nike’s at the British Library right now for the exhibition they are hosting and as we were about to start a new exhibition with some of Nike’s works and some by other Nigerian artists, I was contacted by a photographer who had these beautiful photographs that she had worked on with Nike. After seeing the photographs, I decided to change the scope of the exhibition to focus primarily on Nike,” explains Cooper. “We then came up with the theme of the exhibition which is ‘the power of one woman’, not only dealing with Nike’s works of art in terms of the paintings and the ink works but also focusing on the jewellery and the Adire she is well-known for internationally.”

“For any followers of her work from around the world it will be just another step in seeing new works and some of the new fabrics but for those who have not seen her work before, it will quite an introduction to the multi-faceted nature of the great lady,” says Cooper when asked about what we can expect from the exhibition.

For many, of course, Nike Davies-Okundaye needs no introduction. The phrase “the power of one woman”, it seems, is made for one of the forerunners of African art. With no formal education, Davies-Okundaye was brought up amidst the traditional weaving and dyeing practice in her native village of Ogidi in Western Nigeria and trained in the traditional Adire arts in Oshogbo in south-western Nigeria.

From a polygamous marriage and selling her art works for 50 kobo from a back room in her then- husband’s house where she lived alongside many other wives, she is now the founder and director of four art centres which offer free training to young artists in visual, musical and the performing arts, and the owner of the largest art gallery in West Africa, holding over 7,000 artworks as well as an arts ambassador whose works are priced at $40,000.

About the exhibition, the artist promises “the spirit of an African woman who transformed this spirit and power on to the painting to make the painting speak to everybody.” Such mystical language is of course no surprise given that Davies-Okundaye often credits Osun, the Yoruba deity reigning over Ọsun-Ọsogbo Grove, incidentally also married to a polygamous man – as her source of inspiration and the benefactor behind her success.

Chief Davies-Okundaye has received numerous international recognitions for her role in elevating Adire – an indigo-dyed cloth produced by Yoruba women – into an art form, and is credited with the contemporary revival of Adire. Her dynamic compositions embody new and traditional techniques and pioneering new ways of printing onto the indigo-dyed cloth.

From fabric to paper, through engaging ancestral symbols to capturing the spirit of modern life, Chief Davies-Okundaye’s works on textiles have informed her paintings. These symbols are not merely decorative; each one embodies a narrative.

“The process of making Adire was a way of communication in those days and the women used the fabric to talk to the government and to communicate amongst themselves with the patterns put on the fabric, but they never shared this unspoken language. And when they just wear the colour blue, you know they are in love with their husband or they are in love with their city, but each pattern has a meaning. Now the government of our country, and the whole of Africa in general, are going back to their roots. Now we are learning to carry our culture along and this is where Mrs. Cooper comes in in a great way to showcase the work.”

Once a persona non grata reported to the police countless times for empowering women by training them in this traditional art at her centres, the first of which was founded in Oshogbo in1983 with limited personal funds, Chief Davies-Okundaye is now a national icon. Defining gender roles while drawing on past wisdom to nurture future knowledge has long become a calling for the artist who has trained over 4,000 disadvantaged women by empowering them through the discovery of their own creativity and the knowledge of the traditional art of Adire she imparts to them.

“I am one of the first women in Nigeria who started using the Adire to bring together and for them to also learn the art. They were using police to arrest me all the time and some of the husbands of these women who still have the knowledge, they will say ‘we don’t want our women to do this’ but now they see that even universities are sending their children to the centre to come and learn and I am happy that Mrs. Cooper is here to help us to showcase it to the world, so they can see the powerful work of African women,” explains Davies-Okundaye.

The exhibition is also a team effort involving the veteran artist Nike and photographer Joanna Lipper, who first photographed her in Oshogbo, Nigeria, in 2010, resulting in a series of portraits that depict feminine power, resilience, psychic integrity and spiritual faith.

“Through this series of images, I was striving to illuminate Nike’s dedication to the preservation and transmission of traditional Yoruba belief structures, art techniques and visual vocabularies to new generations, along with her own internationally influenced, progressive thinking when it comes to securing Nigerian women’s rights and economic autonomy through the practice of these enduring art forms,” Lipper offers. “My photographic process incorporates a digital camera, the creation of a colour negative and traditional darkroom printing techniques, echoing the interweaving of past and present that conceptually shapes my approach to photographing women, whose lives are shaped by the tension between patriarchal traditions and encroaching, progressive modernity when it comes to defining gender roles in Africa.”  

Highlights of the exhibition include works from the “Feminine Power” series which range from an early monochromatic pen and ink work to dynamic yet intricate works in blue acrylics. One of the works in this series, “Feminine Power, 2002,” made in conjunction with her long-time collaborator, Tola Wewe, is on loan to the British Library for their exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. The exhibition also showcases 3 large-scale beaded wall sculptures.  NA

*Nike Davies Okundaye, the Power of One Woman featuring photographs by Joanna Lipper is at the Gallery of African Art (GAFRA), from 10 December 2015 to 6 February 2016

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