The beauty of arts in the place of creation is indelible. The very foundation of the earth takes an artistic form. To despise art is to despise life and to respect art is in the very essence of her creators. Nike Okundaye (a.k.a) Mummy Nike as she is fondly called thinks of art as a source of joy and liberation. She is one of Nigeria’s renowned artist whose trademark is the “adire” and her Midas paintings displayed at her art gallery with sundry textile and paintings.
Her works are explicitly made for you to have unrivalled sensual pleasure. The work of arts displayed at her gallery showcases what we share, believe in and have achieved as Africans and how important these achievements mean to us as memories
Her smile is artistic and the very aura of her personality resonates in her ever-charming looks. She believes in the liberation of womanhood from the shackles of idleness as she encourages women to engage themselves physically and mentally to the greater good of humanity.
In her interview with Azuka Ogujiuba, she reminisces on the good old days-her marital journey through to how the famous “adire” has taken her across the globe. She encourages younger artist to embrace the craft as it brings about fulfillment and elevation.
Q: As one of Nigeria’s reputable artist for decades, how would you say your artistic works, textile and painting has helped Nigeria’s image globally and fostered good governance?
A: Well, my work speaks for me. This is something that I do regularly and more of what I do is “adire”. In those days, they used it to send messages to the government, kings, society and neighbours. I have been using the “adire” like my forefathers, foremothers who had been using the “adire” to talk to the community and government and it has been working for me so far.
Q: You have a lot of paintings and textile materials here (Nike Art Gallery) does it house only your artistic work or that of other artists, too?
A: This gallery is for the whole Nigerian artists. I am working with five thousand Nigerian artists right now, and the works that are here is done by different Nigerian artists. My work is not even up to one percent of the work here. We have artists from the thirty-six states.
Q: Looking at art in Nigeria as a business, is there any wrong impression about being an artist that you want to correct generally?
A: Well, the only wrong impression I will say I want to correct is for the parents to always support their children if they want to become artist because a lot of parents always say I want you to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, instead of them to support the child to become an artist or any other creative thing that he/she is good at. So, at the end of the day, the child is not happy because they did not allow the child to follow his or her path, that is the only wrong impression I will like to correct. If your child loves art, encourage him/her to go for art.
Q: You are one of the few persons (artist) that are putting Nigeria on the global map when it comes to celebrating our heritage and culture through the “adire” and other artistic work of yours, do you think Nigerians appreciate art as it is, or do we need to do more or come to terms with it generally?
A: Well, I have to thank you and the youths, especially this our governor in Lagos and the government here. They appreciate arts because they have been to different countries and they have seen how arts are used in different offices. When you get an office overseas, fifteen percent of the money they use to build the office is what they use to buy art to beautify the office. The younger people are the future of tomorrow and the government of the day and our governor is supporting arts. We have many young collectors now. The Stock Exchange are also supporting the youths to embrace arts. I will say there is a future for arts in Nigeria.
Q: We learnt you were married off at fourteen, is that true?
A: I lost my mother when I was six, my grandmother when I was seven. I could hardly have an education because my father had no money. He was an artist. when I get to fourteen, he decided to marry me off to someone who had money. He was a minister and he was already married, so I had to run away. This minister made my father believe that he was helping him by marrying me but it was not true so I ran away. I had to fall into the wrong hands but I always thank God because I was one of fifteen wives. After I ran away, I had to be in a polygamous house, my first husband married fifteen wives and I lived there for fifteen years. I decided to leave after some years and I got married to a white man who left when he finished his job here in Nigeria. l had two beautiful daughters with him. In my first marriage, I had four children and I got married to the police, and people said police don’t like artist and artist doesn’t like police, but we proved them wrong because police is your friend.
Q: When you were married to the artist, how many wives were you all in the house?
A: We were fifteen wives. When I first got married to him, we did not marry in court. What was done then was just for the man to pay your dowry, but I did not allow him to pay my dowry. The senior wife who had left, came back. I was there in the house and he started bringing other wives every year. He would bring another wife and say this one will be a good model, she will be modelling your dress, this one will be a good cook, she will be cooking for us, this one will be a good seller, she will be selling arts for us. There was a singer, guitarist and model to mention a few -that is how we became fifteen.
Q: Where you the eldest of the wife?
Q: Was he saying all those things just to bring them (women) in for fun or they were going to assist you?
A: yes, and in those days, we thought marrying many wives helps but I will not encourage anybody to build a polygamy home. It is just good to have your husband to yourself and focus on your life.
Q: How were you able to cohabit with other housewives, didn’t you all fight?
A: Actually, it was always off and on fighting. If we are fighting, and visitors come in, we have to behave ourselves and even start laughing. The visitors would ask what is happening here, and we will say we are joking that we are talking about something and as a result they call it beautiful polygamous. In those days of our fathers, they (Men) marry us and put us on the farm but now, when you marry a woman, you either to help her get an education or help her become something in life. There was always fight, three of us were living in one bedroom and when the husband is with somebody here, you have to just pretend and you know the iron bed makes a noisy sound when on it, you have to pretend you did not hear and if you cough, then he can get up and say you are jealous.
Q: Does that mean you women(wives) must have been very patient?
A: If you don’t have patience, you cannot live in a polygamous house and many people who have written books on polygamy have never experienced it. Some of the junior wives can just wake up and say we saw our husband coming to you, your time has pass, you are too old for him. Funny enough, he married all of us at a younger age sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.
Q: You were the eldest of the wife then, how did you manage when they were rude to you?
A: I just had to pet them. If you want to say you are the senior wife, it will bring a lot of headaches, you can be beaten by the junior wives. Some of our senior wives were always beaten and their face will be swollen. I always beg and be nice to them.
Q: Are you still in touch with some of them?
A: yes, we are very close friends. When I was leaving about seven of them followed me to leave the house and he married another set of seven, we are about twenty-one in total and we have sixty-three children.
Q: Is it right to say he was a womanizer?
A: No, he was a very brilliant artist and a musician. He thought we could build the home like a company, once he marries you, you become part of the company. You don’t need to work for a salary, you work for your children to have education- like a business marriage.
Q: When you were leaving what was his reaction. Did you tell him you were leaving?
A: No, you cannot tell him you are leaving, what I did was that I told the other wives. When he was not around, we get along well, it is only when he comes back that we will be fighting ourselves. And did you know the reason he got married to all of us was that he enjoys women fighting over him because he is a handsome man. So, we came to understand that we had small brains to be fighting ourselves over him. Actually, a lot of the men loves that, they want to see a woman fighting over them because they think they are very handsome. But women should not be the ones fighting, the men should be fighting over us. After sometimes, we said is not good to be fighting ourselves. He comes to you and says I love you more than Azuka, I love Azuka more than, so you are happy, inside you, you think you are the favorite; I am the wife he loves, then he will say is you I love, we were all happy inside of us because we all thought we were favorites. But one day we realized he says the same thing to everybody. So, that was how we all disagreed. He said I am just so happy to see the women fighting over me because I am a handsome man.
Q: At what point did you say you were tired and done with the marriage?
A: After twenty-one years, I just said enough is enough.
Q: Did you move from Oshogbo to Lagos?
A: No, I was in Oshogbo there, I moved to Ede. when I left him, we had one exhibition in Kaduna and in the paper, they said the sisters are doing it for themselves now and they are not working for one man anymore, each one of us is working for ourselves, then this white man said he has not seen a female artist in Africa, he read it in the paper, that is how they came to look for me, in my fifteen years I built a small bungalow and I moved there and started my work. after I left him in Oshogbo, he was running after me all over, I now move to Ede, my first breakthrough was going to America in 74 and all of us were saying it is our cross, we have to carry the cross, when I get to America and I was asking people how many wives did your husband marry, this one we say only me, I now say when I get home, I am going to tell the others. when I came back from US, instead of us fighting ourselves I said if this work can take me to America, let me teach you, that is how I started teaching the other wives and we became closer, and we had our own money, we don’t need to depend on the money from our husband and we have a good advice from the American women who say you don’t need to give all your money to your husband, that is how I was now saving little by little and that is how I was saving to build three bedroom, and this three-bedroom I move there, when I move there he was following me and I move to Ede, that is how the man who helped me, his name is Mr. Davis and he said he has been working in an African country for the past twenty-five years, he has never seen a female artist and seeing about four or five of us, we call ourselves sisters doing the arts, he was so happy and he said will you like to be my friend, I said let me think about it because I was just getting out of fry pan before I get into the fire again, the other co wives will be telling me mama this is good for you, we will support you and that is how little by little, two year after I decided to go and marry him.
Q: That time you know how they regard women who are married to white men, didn’t they call you a prostitute?
A: Of course, when I carried the white man to my village, I was so happy because I was the first female in my village to get married to a white man. To me, it was a great achievement. I felt like I brought another country to my country. My father and all of his friends were calling me “ashewo”. I didn’t care whatever they called me. I was happy that I had one man to myself. I was just saying I don’t care; I will give you something to talk about. when I go to the market, they will say this man you marry, how does their dick look like, then I will say it has no number. So, little by little, people started talking about me. They will say, that woman who was one of the seven wives of the other man is married to a white man now. All of them were talking about me. I was like Shina Peter. Shina Peter said give them something to talk about. I was able to have a man to myself, I was happy. We were married for ten years. After ten years, his work finished here and he said he wants to go back to the UK so he’d be getting his retirement money because he also didn’t finish school. He stopped at primary six after he lost his father. He went back to the UK, then I continued my life here.When we came back from Germany at one point, me and Georgina who is our boss, they told me the police wanted to see me. They will always use police to arrest me because I was teaching women. I will say I am teaching them liberation and how to make money through their own palm so they can be supporting their children as well like when the husband put five kobo in the house, you will be able to put two kobo down. But they were not okay with it, so they will always use police to arrest me all the time. That was how the young commissioner sent for me to report in his office. Before then, he had come to my gallery to buy a table clock and he also told me that his mother wears “adire”, and when it was reported to him that I am always liberating women, I said is not like that, I am teaching these women free of charge. I give them accommodation, I make sure they have material to work, after six month I do exhibition for them in Lagos. l will tell them, now you have this money, go and start your own business, training the trainers is what I do, when I train you, you have to train others.
Q: Do you see yourself as a feminist?
A: During that time, I was worried about us just sitting down as polygamous wives and not doing anything. Poverty was actually what made us sit there. I did not like where I was sitting, and I also knew I could not go back to my parents; I cannot go back to my father. My father was keen to marry me off. At the end of the day, after he (The white man) met me, Georgian also was among the people who followed to my home and we explain about how I was teaching the children. They also made my people to understand that they also came to Nigeria to make sure they teach and train artist who will in turn train another local artist. They said it was only me doing it and that they were very happy with my works. My husband the (The white man) took the children to the UK to have good education because there was problem in Nigeria then as a result of the election that Abiola won. There was riot everywhere, I had to go with the children to the UK to settle them in school. My layer suggested that for me actually and I didn’t leave them. I want to make sure other women see me as a role model. Because if I carried divorce on my head and felt weak, what happens to those looking up to me? I want them to learn and understand that if they have patience and work hard, they can always achieve their heart desire.
Q: How did you meet your third husband; was it love at first sight?
A: I met him the second year after he had lost his wife, he said he loves arts and he will like to marry me, I said it not me, then Georgia and Holibia said this will be a good idea, they said you know in your first husband house, police always arrest us, this will bring the police and the artist together, they are the one who advises me that if this man wants to marry me that I should agree.
Q: When you got married, was he supportive of your career?
A: Yes, when we got married, we got married traditionally. He was so kind and supportive. The experience was very different from my previous marriage where it was all fight. He was so peaceful. You don’t even know when he is upset, he was always quiet. He was a boxer and I was happy because I thought he will help me beat the man who always beat me before I got married to him, but he would always say that he is not a troublesome person -that he just came here to work and marry his African woman and live peacefully. He said he lost interest in white women since he started working in Africa. The police commissioner invited him over and asked him about his relationship with this woman(me) he wants to marry. He came from the UK and they talked, he said Nike(me) is a very hard-working woman. He told him I was the one supporting him while he was here in Nigeria because then, Naira was bigger than pounce. He was only making seven hundred pounds and then I was making over a thousand and five hundred pounds. The police further asked him if he was the one that built the house, and he said no that Nike was the one that built it that his salary was not even enough. He was paid half of his salary because he was also married before and got divorced in the UK. He has two children in the UK. When the children entered university, I supported him as well to make sure that the education I don’t have my children have it. I raised my first son as single mother; I carried all those “adire” to different state in the US and other African countries to be able to train my first son to finish his master degree because I always wanted them to have that education because I didn’t have the privilege of having that education.
Q: Do you have a child with your present husband?
A: Yes, I have a daughter with my present husband. Her name is Ameh. Ameh just finished from the university and has obtained a degree. I had two girls (Caroline Davies and Alison Davies) with the British man I married initially. I also have twins. I had four but lost one, I have three left now. My other children are abroad and they do come home occasionally. The children of the commissioner of police are so nice to me; they take me as their Mama.
Q: Did you experience domestic violence in your first marriage?
A: When he wants to express his real character to us, he does so in a very angry manner. Whenever he (My husband) gets upset, he would run after us and we run and jump over the fence for our safety. But now, because of the children we don’t say the part, like the bad things he did to us, we always try to say the good part. A place where you have four or five women fighting for one man, it is always bound to be a violent place. But when talk about polygamy, they make it look like its good, but it has a lot of bad part. That is why I tell anyone who cares to listen that polygamy is not good. Women are not polygamous, but it is the men who are polygamous. You can’t see a woman who marries two husbands.
Q: What advice do you have for women who are in a violent relationship because of their children?
A: Well, my advice to women is that if you see that your husband is too violent, don’t divorce him, just have a little patience. If you exercise patience and he does not change, you can separate yourself from him for a while. He will come back to his senses and would come and beg you-that is if he truly loved you and wants you back. But if you put your head there and say I don’t want to leave, it can lead to something else. Most times, women would not want to leave because of their babies and as a result they would stay with the man and get killed. I will not advise you to sit down there for you to be killed, I will say go to your parents, if you don’t have parents, then you can just go to a friend if you know he or she can help you to calm down. Though, in everything, patience is the best. If you have patience, you will be patient with him when he is angry, most especially if you know that he is not a violent person. When is he angry and shouting, you just keep quiet, he too will calm down. There is no perfect marriage, you manage it because every man in this world changes in marriage in one way or the other. The women too also change- you cannot remain the way you were when he married you at first. Immediately you have one or two babies then, you start to change. Your body starts coming down. But you know men, they want the one that is standing up. I always advise women in marriage; don’t despise your husband’s friends, let your husband know he still has friends, don’t drive away his friend because if you do, the friend will be the one to advise him to leave you. Just learn how to pet him and know how to manage him.
Q: what do you want to be remembered for?
A: I want to be remembered as Mama “Adire” because this is the textile that has taken me to a greater height.
Q: Looking back, you were married off at 14, and then, it was normal for teenage girls to be given out in marriages. However, such practice is still in existence today largely as a result of religion. What is your advice to parent who give out their teenage daughters in marriage?
A: My advice to parents who gives out their children in marriage is that they should let the child follow his/her heart to achieve their heart desire. They should allow the child decide for him or herself. If a young lady and a young man is in love and want to settle down with each other, the parents should give them their blessings and advise them properly on marriage instead of trying to separate them.
Q: Is there a particular person or artist that inspires you in Nigeria?
A: Yes, all the artist in Nigeria inspires me. Immediately I see their work, I get motivated. I know the one which talks to me because life is arts and arts is life. Currently, I am having an exhibition at Yaba after 40 years. This exhibition is for people to see my life from 1970 to this time and it is at Yaba-Tech.
Q: What is your biggest mistake in life?
A: My biggest mistake is not having an education. In those days, women were not allowed to have an education and even if you have an education, it came with limitations. If your husband has masters, you are not allowed to have masters like your husband. I could not have an education because of poverty then, but I am happy to see females as bank managers, ministers now. I am just looking forward to seeing a female governor and president during my lifetime. I have seen it in other African countries where women are Governors and presidents.
Q: Looking at our political setting or terrain in Nigeria, the politics in Nigeria is male-dominated, do you think a woman will ever become president?
A: Of course, I have hope and I always hold on to my hope that sooner or later, a woman would become president of this country.
Q: You have experienced so much in life, what are some of the lesson life has taught you?
A: Life has taught me how to be patient and how to be my sister’s keeper. Life has also taught me how to share my knowledge with others because Nigerians are always their brother’s keeper. No matter what you have, you have to share, even a little village share their common problem. This present governor has shown us how to bring ourselves together as one family. You don’t have say this one is Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba we are one Nigeria. Life has taught me all these as well.
Q: I know you wear a lot of “adire”, is that your most comfortable outfit?
A: I wear “adire” because it’s my work. I call them wearable arts. This is what I do, there is nobody who will wear it just like I would wear it myself- that is why I am doing the work in the first place.
Q: You are a very busy person, always attending to customers, do you create time to relax?
A: The artist dies with the brush in his/her hand. When I am working, am at the same time relaxing because for me I love what I do. I divide my time into three, one for my family, one for my work and one for my gallery, I always make sure that when I am working, I concentrate on my work and I work more at night.
Q: You have come a long way as an artist, we have a lot of young artists right now who are still struggling, some of them are on the verge of give up because they feel art is not paying off, what is your advice for them?
A: My advice for them is to focus on anything they know they are good at. If you are good at painting, do it well. You must focus on what you want to do and in one year, in two years, once you have set yourself a goal, you will achieve your heart desire. Don’t back down because of financial constraint- you don’t do art because of money, its first born out of passion. The highest selling artist now in the 54 countries in Africa is a Nigerian woman under 40, the daughter of Dora Akunyili her name is Njideka Akunyili. The future belongs to the younger generation and ours is just to advise them.
Q: What is your take on the girl that was mistakenly killed by the police when a sect of the Yoruba speaking people came out to protest?
A: First of all, whenever there is a protest, I don’t think it is good for younger people to go for it. I can’t even advise my children to go for a protest because casualties can happen. When I am going on the road and I see police with guns and they stop me, I always stop because power is in their hands. whatever the youths want to do, they should do it with patience. If there is a problem, they can go and see the governor, he is a nice man, he is our son and he is doing a lot to bring Nigerians together especially those in the neighbouring states. You can say your heart desires, he is our governor and he will listen to you, this is what we want.