Ana - Alicante, España
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For Chief Dr Nike Davies-Okundaye, Adire fabric symbolizes empowerment, ownership, and liberation
To compliment our video ‘The Color of Love’, Batik and Adire artist Chief Dr Nike Davies-Okundaye (affectionately known as Mama Nike) speaks to COLORS about using textiles to provide Nigerian women with a livelihood, environmentally-friendly production processes, and preserving culture and traditional crafts for new generations.
“I always sign the work I do by myself with my name N-I-K-E and I encourage the other women to sign their work too,” says Chief Dr Nike Davies-Okundaye. She’s wearing “Adire Alabela”, a material designed using a wax-resist technique called batik to produce intricate patterns on differently hued fabrics, with a particular focus on the color indigo. At first glance, it’s easier to view the fabric as merely a fashion piece, but it’s more than that. “I call it wearable art,” Davies-Okundaye adds. This art has become a symbol of the enduring heritage of the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria from whom the fabric emanates. For Davies-Okundaye, as well as the many Nigerian women she has worked with throughout her five-decade-long career, it also denotes empowerment, ownership, and liberation.
Nike Davies-Okundaye, affectionately known as Mama Nike, is one of the most renowned pillars of African arts and culture. Having produced endless innovative designs and accrued a vast knowledge over her five-decade-long career as a Batik and Adire artist, she has showcased her work in over 100 international exhibitions, led lectures and workshops at Ivy League Universities, sat on the Nigerian Tourism Board, and won awards including the Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà Italiana—one of the highest national honors in Italy. Most importantly, Davies-Okundaye, through her work with Adire, acts as a beacon of courage and hope for African artists and women. Looking back at her career, the artist notes, “we have used textiles to change so much.”
“You have to wear your indigo to show your people that you love them.”
Indigo is regarded as the color of love by the Yoruba people. “The pattern of Adire is the way we used to communicate in the past,” Davies-Okundaye explains. “While water patterns tell you ‘I’m not your enemy, I’m your friend,’ the image of a gecko says ‘find me a room in your house and in your heart.’ It is used by lovers.” While romantic at times, the love of community and the environment are two of the most important elements of Adire. “You have to wear your indigo to show your people that you love them,” adds Davies-Okundaye. It is this love that has informed her service to her community, and her dedication to empowering women of little means through education in this age-old craft. “Now, they have their own voice because their work is their voice. There are over 4000 women whose lives have changed thanks to textiles,” she says. In many ways, Davies-Okundaye is one such woman.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in Kogi State, Davies-Okundaye first encountered the process of Adire-making through her great-grandmother at the age of six. “By the time I was ten-years-old, I was already weaving on a proper loom and considered a professional,” she reminisces. Having come from a poor background, money earned from creating textiles and working menial jobs became a way for her to afford her school tuition fees. “I’d work and save until I had about fifteen shillings,” she says. As was the practice at the time, Davies-Okundaye was married off at the age of fourteen to the then-famous musician and painter, Twin Seven Seven. Before finding the courage to divorce him fifteen years later, she taught her skills to her fellow wives as a means of survival. “There were fifteen of us married to one man,” she explains. “We always fought with each other because there was a shortage of food and water. But then I showed them that we could work with our hands to take care of ourselves.”
“There are over 4000 women whose lives have changed thanks to textiles.”
Little did Davies-Okundaye know, the teaching model she developed in the bedroom in her husband’s house in Osogbo, Osun State would form the basis of multiple textile learning centers and galleries established in her name in years to come. Today, she boasts galleries in Ogidi-Ijumu, Abuja, Lagos, and of course, Osogbo. “I wanted to create a space where everyone’s voice could be heard,” says Davies-Okundaye. As a result, her galleries have become hubs for established and budding artists alike. “I tell artists: ‘you can put your work here. If I sell it, you give me 10% of the profit.’ That 10% goes to help the less privileged. I make enough money from my own art.” Not everyone is happy about Davies-Okundaye’s support of female artists, however. “A lot of husbands don’t want their wives to become artists,” she explains. This attitude reflects the widespread patriarchal ideals that continue to be upheld in Nigerian society.
For Davies-Okundaye, Adire is not only a means of providing Nigerian women with a livelihood: she also thinks it’s important to pass traditional craft-making on to newer generations to preserve culture and protect the environment. “All these beads you are seeing,” she says pointing to her accessories, “they were all made from plastic water bottles. You can use your hands to create beautiful things out of the objects people throw and that end up clogging our gutters and littering our rivers.” With this in mind, Davies-Okundaye also ensures that all of her creative processes and materials are natural and organic. “We use vegetable dye and the burnt skin of cocoa to outline it.”
When asked about her vision for the future of the Indigenous textiles, Davies-Okundaye simply says: “I don’t want them to die off.” Considering the fact that Nigerian brands like This Is Us, WAFFLESNCREAM, and Lagos Space Programme are adapting local textile staples to fit the taste of new generations, it seems safe to say that the industry is in safe hands.
Chief Dr Nike Davies-Okundaye, affectionately known as Mama Nike, is a Batik and Adire artist who is heralded as one of the most renowned pillars of African arts and culture. To find out more about her work, follow Nike Art Gallery on Instagram, or check out her website.
This article was written as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage in line with a recent production period in Lagos, Nigeria in Spring 2022. Head over to our YouTube channel to watch the shows we produced with Nigerian artists, or to our editorial platform to read more articles about Lagos-based fashion designer Bubu Ogisi, Nigeria’s first contemporary art fair, or contemporary highlife band The Cavemen.
Text: Ify Obi
Photography: Megan Courtis
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Ana - Alicante, España