It takes twice the efforts of a man to succeed as a female artist, by Okundaye

The gates to Nike Centre for Art and Culture, Lekki, are welcoming and project emphasis of what lay behind them. The African milieu is unmistaken even in a high-profile Lekki setting where everything is in competition for western values. It could be really pride, after all to be an African –a Nigerian to be precise. The beautiful display of artworks, ranging from painting, metal and even the building itself are irresistible testimonies. Though it was the first time encounter with Chief (Mrs) Monica Oyenike Okundaye, it seemed there had been a long history of acquaintance

Okundaye is one of Nigeria’s most celebrated female artists, who, despite not having a formal education, have lectured in some top world universities including, Harvard. The ever-lively Okundaye was born in Ogidi Ijumu, a small, remote village in Kogi State on May 23, 1951. She lost her mother at the age of six, and went to live with her great-grandmother, Madam Ibikunle.

Ibikunle was skilled in hand cloth weaving, and as young Nike began to help her grandmother, little did she know what fate had in stock for her.

She recalled: “My first work was in 1969, when I did embroidery on cotton pillow cases. I wrote different messages on them, and sold quite a lot to some reverend sisters. It was then I realised… so, I could actually do this for sale.”

Considering the level of success she has attained, Okundaye shared her experience, noting that for a female artist to succeed, she has to put in twice the efforts of a man. “It takes quite a lot to succeed in whatever profession you have found yourself. I believe that whatever you want to do, you must embrace it, with honesty; you have to be hardworking, have a set purpose and be dedicated to it as well as build a focus, and to crown it all, you have to carry through all these attributes by being humble to whoever comes your way. More importantly, you need a well-coordinated planning. A lot of people come with different ideas; some will come to tell you what you are doing is wrong, others will tell you what you are doing is right. But if you believe in yourself, follow what your mind tells you to do.”

On challenges of managing a facility as big as Nike Centre for Art and Culture, she disclosed there are challenges of staffing. For example, “Some staff feel they need to move ahead in their own way of life, probably they want to get married, they want to leave, and these are people you have grown to understand. But, they sometimes end up dragging you backward. The training and retraining, hiring and rehiring of staff are some of the challenges. Maintaining this gallery is not an easy task in terms of funding; you need the air conditioners working, the lights working, and these things are not cheap.”

She also lamented the unstable power supply, which had blown some of the air conditioners. “We need to change them and the cost of replacing them almost double what it was last year. Also, the electricity supply is irregular and we get huge bill at the end of the month. Alternatively, we had to buy two sets of generators when the power company could not supply us regular electricity, and fuelling the generator cost a lot of money. Also, the Lagos state comes from time to time to harass us on licensing of things that we don’t even have. They want us to pay Radio and television license when we don’t even have. We also have the problem of bad road; if this road were tarred, could you imagine the number of people that would be trooping into this gallery?”

Costs of art materials, she added, have also increased. “The cost of materials is on the rise as well; last year, you could frame a piece of art work for N5000, but today, it is done for N12000, so, the amount is more than double. With all these challenges, I think the government should wake up to all the promises made to us, so that the pain of maintaining this gallery would be reduced.”

Though, managing an art gallery is demanding, in terms of the creative and intellectual inputs, Okundaye advised owners to be their own managers. “If you have opportunity to manage your business, it is always better. A lot of staff wants to be like you, when you hire them; they want to own the kind of business you have, but they don’t know how you got here. It is better to manage the business yourself than to bring in others to come and manage for you. It is only when it has grown too big for you to manage then you can detach yourself, but if it is a small business like ours here, it is always better to be around. Most times, when I am not here, my husband is always here. There is the problem of staff not being purely dedicated to their job; all they care about is that at the end of the month they get their pay,” she noted.

Okundaye commended government’s attempt at diversifying the Nigerian economy, urging it to pay keen attention to art and culture, as the sector could be key in boosting a country’s economy.

“From simple logic, if you put all your eggs in one basket, if that basket drops, all your eggs will be broken. But if you spread them, you would be able to save some. Same way, if the government is serious about diversification of the Nigerian economy, they should really focus on art and culture. Art and culture as we know, is the principal ingredient in developing tourism in any nation. Tourism industry brings a lot of money to the economy.”

According to the art matron, “for the Nigerian government to grow enabling environment for art and culture, it must first of all create opportunity for private investors to come in to put their money into tourism, and help creative artists to develop their art, because the tourists are not coming to look at the fine hotels you have, but they want to see what you represent in terms of habits, set values, the way you eat, dance and sing, where you live and the way quarrels are settled among people. We have a lot of resources that can be developed to attract tourists, who are coming to spend hard currencies, and this will also boost the hard currency base of this country.”

She argued that the government could provide soft loans to creative artists, as most tourists come because of these artistic works. “The government can also use tourism to create jobs to the thousands of unemployed graduates in the country, there are so many facets to tourism; you will train professionals such as tourist’s guards, drivers and others.”

Okundaye who turned 65 last month, still hopes to impact more female lives through her schools. “We have a vocational training school where we train young men and women in different aspects of arts for free, which has been on since 1983. We started with 20 girls, but now, the whole place is jam-packed with university students, especially, students from the southern part of Nigeria. Some art collators also send their students there for industrial attachment. Our immediate need and plan is to expand the hostel. The school is open to all, by simply completing an application form, and there is no time limit to the study, it all depends on how serious the individual is,” she said.

Growing up as an informal trainee in adire making, it never really occurred to Okundaye that someday, a star would emerge in her. “I wish one were born a witch; possibly, it would have been possible to see the future. I lost my mother at the age of six. My grandmother took me in, but shortly after, she passed on, so I was left with my great grandmother who was an adire maker. I kept watching how she was making the adire: I would imitate her, and that was how I came to know how to make adire. The fact that people were appreciating what I was doing, gave me the courage to do more and I knew there was no going back. It was amazing how people could appreciate little write-ups on pillowcases. Little things like, Holy Mother of God, Guardian Angel, and so on. I fine-tuned what I learned from my great grandmother and became an artist of international status.”

From the humble beginning of a motherless baby, Okundaye has blossomed into a creative celebrity that attracts gossips and free commenting. On how she manages this, she said, “When you are growing up and developing a profile in any chosen profession, you are likely to step on people’s toes. Some people will like you and others will hate you; lies will be told against you, but you must remain strong and undaunted. Even the men sometimes feel I am dominating, and they feel jealous that people always celebrate me.”

Recounting some of her most memorable moments, the artist recalled: “The first one was when the Reverend Sisters took my works to Canada; simple embroidery work where I used scriptural backgrounds, such as the Last Supper, the Holy Ghost and so on. The works were really appreciated. I never knew such simple things could be sold.

“The discovery of my batik was another memorable one for me. I used to do the adire with chicken feathers and cassava paste. In the village in those days, there was no electricity, what we had was left over candle from the church. On that particular day, as I was doing the adire, the candle wax dropped on the cloth, and I realised that the spot was brighter after scraping it off. I quickly went to church to get more candles. I would put cotton wool on a broom, put it inside the wax and design dots on the cloth before soaking them, and that was how I started batik.

“There was this incident that was also remarkable or unforgettable. I was selected to travel to Germany courtesy of the Nigerian government. But unfortunately, the day we were to leave, they left us behind at the airport. We were to attend a workshop on performing art. However, in 1974, a man came looking for me from the United States. They took ten of us to the US to teach some African-Americans making of batik. The other lady was the popular potter, Ladi Kwali. I couldn’t believe that my art could take me overseas.

“We were taken to the Museum of Textile in Washington DC. Seeing the textile of America, I realised that there was no much difference with our Ankara. When I saw the gallery and museum, I said if God gives me the opportunity, I would love to open something like this in Nigeria. That dream has since been realised to the glory of God. The day I moved to this building was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Just at what point did she add to her creative basket? She replied: When I got back from the US, I thought if I could be given this huge opportunity with no formal education at all, why couldn’t I give others the same? I did the first teaching for six months, giving them accommodation and feeding. I brought them to Lagos to exhibit, and I also had to teach them how to manage the money. The women could not believe how much money they made, so, I told them to go and train others, that was when I changed the workshop to ‘training the trainers’, and it was successful. Later, I decided to make it a cooperative, and this led to the creation of Nike Centre for Art and Culture. Here, I also learn from the young people. Currently, I have a student from the US who is running a nine months programme with us. He is in my village for the course. With no electricity, but he is enjoying it. I used to counsel some women, I trained them and took some of them overseas. I remember their husbands would send police to arrest me, saying, ‘Nike has carried our women abroad o’. Some men would say, my wife didn’t share the money she made the last time with me, I am not going to let her go this time. There was a programme in Italy, the Italian government had over 5000 Nigerian women, and they didn’t want to deport them, because they would find a way of coming back. The Italian government invited me to go and train these women so that they could have handwork. When I got to Italy, I realised that most of the girls didn’t know they were taken to Italy for prostitution, they thought they had gone to work in a shoe factory. I then invited Ola Balogun, a filmmaker to assist me, and we started work immediately, for the first year, we were only able to transform 300 girls. The training continued for six years, at the end, we changed over 3000 of them.”

With the economic situation in Nigeria, one would think that Nike would have a 1000 and one complaints about the country, but on the contrary and taking a long breath, she admits, “I love my country, it is the only country I don’t need a Visa to enter, and I am not a second class citizen. I would rather remain in Nigeria, because if all of us run away during hard times, then, who is going to be around when the good times come? Nigeria is blessed, we can grow just about any crop and fruit; we now grow moringa, which is highly medicinal. Most of our traditional meals that people don’t eat anymore are healthy and natural. I always thought without education, one is useless, but that is not true, the first education-the first knowledge we get from our parents is very important.”

She also admits that just like any other country, there are things she doesn’t like about Nigeria. “My perception about the Nigeria Police is beginning to change, but before now, I never liked them; they would always arrest artists for no reason. I decided to change what I didn’t like about Nigeria by getting close to the police, to the point of marrying one. I wanted to know why we were always being arrested, and to find a way of bringing the police and artists together,” she revealed.

“When I first met my husband, he told me that artists were being arrested because of their mode of dressing, they wear such weird hair-styles that one could take them for criminals, and since the police duty is to arrest criminals, the artists were easy targets. When I came back from America, I was wearing heels, long nails; I tried to be like an American, but I am Nigerian. I can tell you that since I met my husband, he has been an inspiration in my life; he has helped in counselling so many artists to look more decent and responsible. My husband is such a nice and caring man.”

Aside from loving the arts, the kitchen is her second favourite place in her house, as she loves to try new dishes/recipes every now and then. “I love pounded yam and egusi soup. In my village, we eat pounded yam for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I love cooking it myself; I cook for my husband all the time, I am up every day at 5am to prepare his meal, because he would never eat outside. I enjoy cooking, because it is part of arts.”

On her social life, she draws a long laugh, “Well, I like to socialise. What I really like to see is that women are recognised for their contributions to development. Take a look at Hilary Clinton who, won her party primaries; it is the first time in the history of America. I remember when Fashola was in power; we went to suggest to him that we needed more female on his board. Also, El Rufai, when he was a minister in Abuja, he was one of the people that discovered me; he is passionate about arts, likewise Donald Duke.

“The government should put the right people in position to see to the growth of art in Nigeria. I am happy that President Buhari does not discriminate; he can appoint the right people into the right positions irrespective of their sex, education or tribe.”

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