Lifelines - `nikeartcenters.com’
In the morning I wander Lagos’ Admiralty Rd alongside kids playing in a metre-deep open drain – a sagging plank the only crossing to an overgrown stall selling concrete blocks. On the road I step between deep flooded potholes, dodging the erratic driving of a 3-wheeler keke-marwa and a bouncing black BMW.
Soon a freeway straddles a great roundabout, the traffic clogged and mostly stationery, across the way my goal: a 5-storey gallery. This is Nike’s place, built in 2009, a grand white building with more than 7000 pieces on show from all over Nigeria.
At the gate, I’m greeted by 2-black lion guardians and a Nigerian artist now living in Calgary; the place buzzing with local media. Here in Lagos, it’s a humid 30degC. He’s “here for Nike” he says. “People, they come from everywhere. They will do anything for this lady.” I wonder how he handles the Canadian winters, and he raises his eyebrows. “Oh well, in 20yrs, you get used to it.”
`Mama’ Chief Nike Davies Okundaye really is something; an elegant woman with a big smile highlighting a gap between her front teeth. She’s in traditional Yoruba dress, the colours and laughter flowing, her Gèlè scarf head-wrap a work of art in itself. Nigerian-born and raised, Nike's a world-famous artist, weaver and embroiderer, with work in The Smithsonian and The White House, and with a fan-base including the late George Harrison.
Having lost her mother and grandmother by age 7yo, Nike learns quickly from her great grandmother, but doesn't complete grade 6 primary school. She leaves her village to avoid an early marriage.
In 1974 Nike is one of 10 African artists invited to the USA, meeting and teaching African-American about their artistic roots. In 1996 she establishes a textile weaving centre. Soon there are 20-young street girls, with Mama Nike providing food, materials and accommodation.
I buy a set of Nike’s own sketches, a `Village Series’ in greens, blues and browns, the gable houses rustic, each tree the abode of ancestors and spirits.
Nike’s smile is perpetual. “You know, these pieces mean a lot to me. In the village the people take care of each other, there are memories of course. But it is education that is the future. Education will provide the opportunities.” Her eyes sparkle. “I am lucky. For I have travelled, and can now help others.”
With over 4000 disadvantaged young Nigerians now trained to make a decent living, I'm humbled at my chance meeting in her hectic day, and the achievements of this remarkable artist - a sure testament to a committed human being, and such a generous but tenacious woman of vision.
Photo: `Mama’ Chief Nike Davies Okundaye _ by nikeart