By Keith Richards
It is not possible to fully appreciate the work of Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye, the artist, without having some understanding of the cultural, social and religious environment that has shaped her life and her work. The very essence of Nike can be seen very clearly in this collection from the early monochrome pen and ink work, through her time at the Osogbo School under the spiritual influence of her mentor Suzanne Wenger and right until her latest collaboration with Tola Wewe in their “Stitches of Partnership”.  Throughout her life Nike has always remained utterly connected to her being as a Yoruba woman. From leaving home at 13 to escape an arranged marriage, the experience of being the junior wife in the Twins Seven Seven compound, the profound mysticism of the Orisha religion and the witnessing of the failure of Western Nigerian Society to improve the economic and social lot of rural and working class women. In fact, the very fibre of Nike’s work is woven from these threads both in terms of the subject and the media she works in.
Much of the work in this retrospective is from a prolific period when, working with Watercolour and Pen & Ink, she documented the lives of women in the village.  Sometimes working but usually singing or dancing, the women are invariably reflected with dignity and humour, warmth and affection.  Despite the economic hardship which led Nike to create centres and workshops where local girls could learn the traditional skills of Adire (Batik), dyeing, weaving and making an independent living (usually selling their output through Nike’s own Galleries) the emotions depicted are those of joy, love and hope. Her determination that Art can be a weapon for the empowerment of her native Yoruba women continues to be her motivation.  Her technical accuracy aligned with her native passion for deep colour and rich texture are eloquent testimony for her beliefs.
Her recent work with Tola Wewe brings yet another dimension albeit from within the same cultural and spiritual framework. Tola defines the shape and broadly the subject matter, which are inspired by the spirits that inhabit his world of Onaism (a group that develop art through the use of traditional Yoruba symbols and beliefs).  Nike develops the texture specifically through the filing of spaces using traditional Adire patterns and Yoruba symbols that represent the emotions and the insight of their ancestors.  This collaboration seems to me to be unique in that the two artists are clearly drawing from the same well of belief, fusing a single mystical motif from their differing techniques and methods.  Renaissance artists, post-impressionists, pre-Raphaelites and others all worked together within their broadly shared value systems, most usually Christian for example, but it is tempting to believe that the same spirits and ancestors were present for both Tola and Nike in their separate studios ensuring a particularly cohesive association.
The range of their collaboration is also of interest.  The early pieces are highly evocative, clearly reflecting the belief that humans and spirits inhabit the same world.  As their work develops, more secular themes such as the “Feminine Power Series” or “Seeking for Love” consider a more overtly sexual side of African Womanhood and the consequence of economic disability, misplacement and desperation.  Nike’s influence in these pieces ensures that dignity and beauty are somehow maintained despite the more graphic approach.  Displaying their versatility there are also examples of a lighter touch, documenting everyday cultural activity and events, as in the “Trip to the Hills”.
It goes without saying that African Art is still a ‘Frontier Market” and buying as an investment is not without its risks.  Having said that, the surge in interest in both modern pieces and older tribal art, encouraged by the development of quality auctions and galleries in Africa itself as well as by the increase in auctions in London, New York and Paris has seen healthy growth in prices.  Given the smaller Watercolour and Pen & Ink pieces in Nike’s show are GBP 3,000 this seems a reasonable risk for a genuine insight into an ancient and vibrant culture from a unique woman.  This November the Smithsonian will be celebrating 50 Years of its African Art Collection and amongst the honourees will be another Nigerian friend and confidant of Nike, Bruce Onobrekpeya.  Something tells me the Gallery of African Art will be somewhere to keep an eye on.  Nike Davies-Okundaye – A Retrospective, is on till 22nd November.
NIKE DAVIES OKUNDAYE; THE ARTIST NIKE DAVIES OKUNDAYE; THE ARTIST Reviewed by Lorine Wyman on January 28, 2018 Rating: 5

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