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Meet the Nigerian illiterate, Nike Okundaye who lectures at Harvard University

Not many in her homeland appear to know about her unique story. But in other lands, especially Europe and America, she is a ‘goddess’ whose works are cherished by kings and presidents.
Without a doubt, the story of Nike Okundaye, the face behind the huge success story of Nike Arts Gallery, located in Lagos, Abuja and Osogbo, is as compelling as it is inspiring.

At a time when young Nigerians are in desperate need of a role model and inspiration in what self-belief and hard work can achieve, Nike’s rise from the status of an unknown village girl born into a seeming insignificant family in a rustic village to a globally celebrated icon would make an A-list inspirational novel.

Born in her native village of Ogidi, Ijumu Local Government Area, Kogi State, young Nike had high dreams about what type of future she wanted for herself. But her dreams were truncated even before they could take form when she lost her mother at age six. “I was six when my mother died,” she said with a tinge of sadness.
With the blow inflicted on her dreams by her mother’s death, young Nike was taken away to live with her grandmother. At the time, many believed that by going to live with an old woman, the young girl’s future had been compromised. But events have since proved that destiny may indeed have been at work in her journey through life.

She had her first contact with the world of arts through her grandmother, who at the time, was the leader of cloth weavers in the community.

She said: “I come from a family of craftsmen. My parents were crafts people from Ogidi in Ijumu Local Government Area, Kogi State. My life as an artist is something that I was born with. I started weaving at the age of six.

“I started with weaving different things, including adire, a traditional Yoruba hand-painted cloth design. As a matter of fact, I can say everything that had to do with textile. They taught me how to weave, using a little calabash. Gradually, I graduated to using bigger materials.”
Though Nike was six years old and barely able to tell the difference between her left and right hands, she already had a picture of the kind of future she wanted.

“My grandmother was the head of all the weavers in our community. So, even as a little child, I already had a dream that I would own a big studio when I grew up. People came from different areas to buy the cloth from her. So, at that time, I already sensed that I might not have the opportunity to go to school.”

With the death of her mother, her grandmother, whose responsibility it was to look after her, did not pamper her in any form. She ensured that the virtue of hard work was instilled in Nike’s young, impressionable mind.

At that time, young Nike, unaware of the reason behind her great grandmother’s action, would cry, believing that she was being unnecessarily punished. “I would cry and lament because I thought she was wicked and punishing me. But today, I always thank her for inculcating in me the virtue of hard work. It was through her that I learnt that you must persevere in whatever you do and never give up on your dreams.”

Although she lost her mother at a time she needed her most, Nike believes that destiny might have been involved in the way her life played out, including her mother’s death. According to her, the mother was a very hard working young woman who would have spared nothing to ensure that her child got a good education up to the university level.

“Even at that young age, I knew that my mother was very hard working. And I am very sure that if she had not died, she would have trained me up to university level. My father was a farmer. He also did several other things like basket weaving to supplement his income. So, definitely, I would have been educated very well if my mother had not died.

“But today, I look at my childhood and all that I went through as something designed by destiny. Who knows, maybe if my mother had not died and I had gone ahead to be educated, I may never have had the kind of opportunity that I have today and may never have risen to the level that I am.”
Nike never went to school to study art, the vocation that has brought her to global spotlight. Vocational training in art was passed down to her by her great grandmother, the late Madam Ibikunle. Watching her great grandmother in the art of adire textile processing and helping her out, Nike walked up the line to become an expert in adire making, dyeing, weaving, painting and embroidery.
A product of the famous Osogbo Art Movement, Nike is today a world acclaimed artist and textile designer. She brings vivid imagination as well as a wealth of history and tradition into the production of adire. Her works are celebrated in major capitals of the world, with her designs exhibited in countries like the USA, Belgium, Germany, Japan and Italy, among others.

Nike spent the early part of her life in Osogbo, a recognised hotbed for art and culture in Nigeria. During her stay in Osogbo, her informal training was dominated by indigo and adire.

Nike’s romance with international exposure began in 1968 when she had an exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Lagos. Since then, she has grown to become a major name on the international art circuit. She is most outstanding in paintings and design of adire, beadwork and batik.

Among Nike’s proudest achievements was her invitation to Italy by the Italian government in 2000 to train young Nigerian sex workers on how to use their hands to engage in creative ventures. Her invitation was as a result of complaints to the Italian government by the young Nigerians that they left Nigeria in search of work, not knowing what they would be forced into. When Nike got to Italy, she taught them skills in craft making and many of the women became self-reliant in no time and stopped their old means of income.

In 2006, she was awarded one of the highest Italian national awards of merit by the government of the Republic of Italy in appreciation of her efforts in using art to address and solve the problems of Nigerian sex workers in Italy.

About two years ago, her adire painting was accepted at The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, located in Washington DC, US. Some of her works can be found amongst the collection of prominent personalities around the world, including the White House.

While little is known about Nike and her works across the country, two former presidents of the USA, Bill Clinton and George Bush, were so enthralled by her works at various times that they sought audience with her during their visits to Nigeria. Much more than just meeting and shaking hands with the two former presidents, it was Nike that decorated George Bush’s room in Abuja during his stay in the country.

These two incidents, Nike told The Nation, were some of the best things to have happened to her.
She said: “When President Bill Clinton of the US visited Nigeria, he asked to meet the woman behind Nike Gallery, and I was taken to Abuja to meet him. It was the same thing with President George Bush. I was invited to meet him in Abuja during his visit to Nigeria. I was the one that decorated the room where the president stayed during the visit. What honour can be greater than this? I feel accomplished.”

As an accomplished artist, Nike has taught in several universities in the US, imparting the knowledge of her traditional adire designs in thousands of eager students from across the world. Her teaching exploits, she disclosed, have taken her to revered institutions like Harvard and Edmonton in Canada.
“I have lectured and held workshops in several noble institutions across the world. Some of the universities include Harvard, Columbus, Edmonton, Ohio and in Los Angeles, among others. My first experience with teaching was in 1974. At that time, I taught people with doctoral degrees.”
Interestingly, all the education she had at the time, according to her, was the traditional education that parents pass onto their children.

“The type of education I had at the time was the education that is passed from parents to their children, not the education you get in a classroom. It was the practical type of education,” she said with a wry smile.

In 1983, she established the Nike Centre for Art and Culture in Osogbo, Osun State, where trainings are offered free of charge to Nigerians in various forms of arts. The centre was opened with 20 young girls who were picked from the streets and offered a new life in arts. So far, according to her, more than 3,000 young Nigerians have been trained at the centre.
Nike OkundayeThe centre also admits undergraduate students from many universities in Nigeria for their industrial training programmes in textile design. The centre now admits students from Europe, Canada and the United States of America. International scholars and other researchers in traditional African art and culture also visit the centre from time to time for their research works on the processing of adire fabric and African traditional dyeing methods.

But she says the true story of the gallery started in her bedroom about 47 years ago.
“The gallery you see today actually started in my bedroom in 1968. In 2008, we opened the one in Lagos, and my husband was always the motivator. It was intended to give the young and old a platform to hear their voice.”

As she spoke, with signs of fulfillment splashed on her face, her husband, Reuben Okundaye, a retired commissioner of police, who had remained quiet since the interview started, suddenly joined in the conversation.

He said: “It is with practical education that she has continued to teach and impart knowledge into people with doctoral degrees and masters in Fine Art. Some of these people even come here under the cover of night to seek advice from her. Yet, some would say she is not educated.”
Speaking about another experience, Mr. Okundaye said he once had an encounter with a prominent Nigerian who told him that his wife would have been made a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria if she was educated. Surprised, he said he took a swipe at the man, telling him his wife was better educated than most of the people that were being flaunted.

He said: “You can imagine, I was discussing with one big man the other day and he said that my wife would have been made a minister if she was educated. I was angry and I asked him what he meant by that. Here is a woman who teaches people with doctoral degrees in higher institutions all over the world, yet you say she is not educated. But when the chips are down, they come to her for advice.”
Asked how she feels whenever she teaches in the classroom, Nike looked up as if relishing her achievements, and said: “I feel fulfilled. It was a very high sense of fulfillment. Imagine, a little girl who grew up in a rustic village without any sign of hope for a good future. Now I stand before PHD holders and teach them. I have been invited to meet presidents of foreign countries. I think I should be proud of my little achievements and be grateful to God.”

In spite of her seeming low education, she insists she has no regrets about not attending school. “I have no regrets at all. I give thanks to God for making all these things possible for me. I also thank my husband for standing by me all these years. I must confess that it was not easy coming this far. You will agree with me that for a woman to be recognised, she has to work three times harder than a man.”

Reechoing his wife’s position, Mr. Okundaye said Nike could not have had any regrets, having attained the heights sought by many across the world. “You asked if she has any regrets. How can that be possible? What kind of regret was she supposed to have with all her achievements? She is fulfilled in every sense of the word,” he enthused.

Expectedly, the couple was attracted to each other by their mutual love for arts. Okundaye told The Nation how it all started: “I have always been an arts lover. I have some of her works. Perhaps, like you said, maybe it was destiny that brought us together.”

With a sterling career as a police officer, which saw him attaining the rank of Commissioner of Police and serving in more than four states, the couple has in the last 20 years of their coming together enjoyed the beauty of marriage and weathered the storm together.

Nike, who would be 64 in a couple of weeks, has also successfully created an identity for herself. Her most treasured clothes, she confessed, are adire fabrics. And it is not surprising that she cannot remember the last time she wore anything other than that.

“You may be right if you say I have created an identity for myself with my adire clothes. It is the only thing that I am known with. I don’t wear any other clothe, even when I travel out of the country,” she said.

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