My rise from grass to grace –Nike Okundaye, founder, Nike Art Gallery 

By Christy Anyanwu

The founder of Nike Art Gallery, Chief Nike Okundaye,  is an embodiment of determination, success and self-assurance. 

Rising from grass to grace, she has weathered many storms to become a doyen of the arts in Nigeria today. 

She is grateful for the gifts life has bestowed on her just as she has an attitude that radiates serenity, that seems to say “this is who I am.” 

She is not ashamed to tell her story of coming from humble beginnings even as she drummed it into your ears that she was once a househelp, did not know how to speak the English Language at one point, while climbing up the ladder of life. 

But today, she wines and dines with the high and mighty in Nigeria and abroad. 

Her gallery is one of the foremost tourist attractions in Nigeria and every day is a busy one for this amiable woman.

She turned 73 years old last month and she opened a window into her past, narrating anecdotes and reliving memories of her three-score and thirteen years. 

At 73 you still look agile. What is the secret? 

It is hard work.The day I  turned 73, I was in Atlanta, I went to the museum. 

So  you spent your birthday in Atlanta?

Yes, I spent my birthday in Atlanta. Every 25th of May, they give us a resolution that  all Nigerians should have a cultural day, which happens to fall on my birthday. I thank former Ambassador Amina Ismaila. She was the Nigerian Ambassador in Atlanta. She’s a great woman, she has made Nigerians proud. She always puts Nigeria on the map. She’s a good ambassador; even Uzoma, the first female Ambassador, was there to celebrate with us. I saw a lot of Nigerians living in Atlanta and I am very proud of them.

What lesson has life taught you as a person?

To have patience, to be focused, to be resilient and persevere. This is what I always tell young people so that they can learn from that and surpass us. I always thank God. I lost my mother when I was six. I lost my grandmother  when I was seven. At one point, as I grew up, all I ate was mangoes that squirrels had eaten. I picked them to eat. By the time I finished primary six, I was a househelp to an Indian woman in Kabba. That Indian woman was the one that taught me how to speak English. The cook was the one doing the interpretation for me. Little by little, I started understanding the English Language. I was there for one year and I saved money to learn Adire making. That was how the journey started. I am happy and I am grateful to my country, to the people who have promoted me in my life, especially the press.

Talking about the press, what was your reaction the first time you saw yourself in the newspaper? 

That was Daily Sketch. I was dancing and showed the paper to everyone. I play guitar, I do Adire, I do weaving, I do women’s loom, I do watercolour,  I do bead mosaic, and I run workshops on different arts, but my own is to create something from nothing. For my fashion brand, I am doing something with raffia. 

People love to take pictures with you, did you envisage that you would be this famous years back? 

Years back, I never knew I would be like this. I thank the American government  for sending me to America.  My first breakthrough was going to America in 1974 to teach African-Americans, and that was why Blinken came to our centre this year to see what we have become. Fifty years ago, they sent 10 people from Africa to America and six were Nigerians, four from other African countries. Baba Bruce is 93, Jimoh Braimoh is in his 80s and I am 73. Blinken came to the gallery and I shook his hand. Fifty years ago, it was his office that took us to America and I was the only female among the 10 artists. Going to America made me have more focus and, today, I am thanking God for my life. I am thanking the Nigerian government also for supporting us, especially  Governor Sanwo-Olu, Lagos State governor. Sanwo-Olu had a big birthday for me when I was 70 years old and that was the first time a state would recognise artists and do something for the artist. It doesn’t mean it’s the people, but a state governor would recognise an artist and do something for the artist. He doesn’t focus on politicians alone, but he carries everybody along as one family. I also thank Diana Chan of GAC Motors.

What informs your gele style? 

Prof Wole Soyinka said we should do something to portray Nigeria. I think that was a few years after Nigeria clocked 60 years. So, I decided to do this peacock gele. You can see the storm, but Nigeria is still standing. The gele is to show Nigerians that whatever comes our way, we can stand. The Meristem advert gele was 42 metres. It is supposed to be in the Guinness Book of Records. That is the biggest headgear in the world now.

Your gallery is a tourist centre now, how do you feel about it? 

We have the biggest gallery  in Abuja that is on 5.2 acres of land, including the museum, which we are opening on the 5th of July. The Spanish embassy is going to have an exhibition there. So, it is going to be a collaboration between Nigeria and Spain. We are expecting all the embassies,  all the ambassadors in Abuja. We are expecting the minister of trade, minister of tourism, minister of arts and culture. Nigeria is a giant. We can withstand any storm. No matter what is happening in the country,  we are always smiling, happy people. 

Your husband will turn 90 years old next month…

(Cuts in) He is my general director  now. He is in charge of exhibitions. He paints also. He’s been there as a father figure, husband and he’s our adviser in the gallery. He’s into tourism, he worked in the Gambia for almost five years as a police officer. They developed tourism in Gambia.

The post My rise from grass to grace –Nike Okundaye, founder, Nike Art Gallery  appeared first on The Sun Nigeria.

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