Chief Nike Davies Okundaye: The Power Of One Woman
I first photographed Chief Nike Okundaye-Davies as part of a project I have been working on since 2009, entitled Women @ Work in Africa. My photographic process incorporates a digital camera, the creation of a colour negative and traditional darkroom printing techniques, echoing the interweaving of past and present that conceptually shapes my approach to photographing women whose lives are shaped by the tension between rigid patriarchal traditions and encroaching, progressive modernity when it comes to defining gender roles in Africa. Given that Nike was already widely renowned as one of Nigeria’s most celebrated artists, I set out to create a series of photographs that revealed new, groundbreaking dimensions of her multi-faceted identity as a Yoruba Chief, daughter, mother, wife, artist, teacher and social entrepreneur. Through this series of images, I was striving to illuminate Nike’s dedication to the preservation and transmission of traditional Yoruba belief structures, art techniques and visual vocabularies to new generations, along with her own internationally influenced thinking when it comes to securing Nigerian women’s rights and economic autonomy through the practice of these enduring art forms.
As a female leader, Nike follows a long historical precedent of Yoruba women who have “translated their economic and social roles into political power and influence, as seen in Yoruba traditions that refer to strong women who founded or ruled kingdoms. Every Yoruba kingdom had a hierarchy of female chiefs… Yet it is equally important to note that, “Women's position in precolonial Yoruba society derived from their status as daughters in their father's lineage and wives in their husband's lineage…. Yoruba marriage contracts conferred control over a wife's labor and her children to the husband and his family.” (Denzer, LaRay. Yoruba Women: A Historiographical Study)
I wanted my photographs to reflect how Nike defines her status not through marriage or lineage as is the status quo in so many traditional, patriarchal cultures all around the world– but on the basis of her own artistic achievements, her independent professional identity and the resulting income that she herself has control over. In the mise en scène and composition of my photographs, Nike appears in most of the images alone, exuding strength, independence, a sense of inner calmness, awareness, self-acceptance and psychic wholeness. She appears self-possessed, at ease with her own solitude in natural settings and also when photographed with her adult daughter, her armed guards and her fellow artists, assembled on the grounds of the home she owns. This is noteworthy in Nigeria, where the vast majority of women do not legally own or inherit property.
My photographs are all set in Osogbo at locations that have deep emotional significance to Nike including her home; her art centre which she founded to train women to practice adire and weaving; and her spiritual home, the Sacred Grove of Osun, the Yoruba Goddess of fertility, protection and healing. The sculptures, shrines and artworks depicting Yoruba deities that are visible in my photographs were created by Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger, working in collaboration with a team of Nigerian artists and craftsmen, who became part of the New Sacred Arts Movement that she founded. The presence of this sacred art in the grove was a factor that contributed to the site being designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site, which ensures its conservation for future generations.
The landscapes that constitute the backdrops of my portraits of Nike are intended to evoke the existence of her vibrant, lush, internal, contemplative, creative space - what writer, Virginia Woolf, and poet, Adrienne Rich, have both referred to as “the dark core,” an internal void where dreams, ideas and thoughts are born and nurtured, eventually to be externalized and expressed through art. My photographs reflect my understanding of Nike’s life and mind that I gained from interviewing her in depth, as well as my perspective as an observer given access to enter into her self-created world of resilience and privilege sustained by art.
As a photographer, filmmaker and Lecturer on Using Film for Social Change, I aim to inspire solidarity between men and women that transcends borders when it comes to fearlessly questioning and exploring women’s rights and roles across diverse cultures. In all my work, I strive to create visual realms of intersubjectivity where thoughts and ideas can be exchanged across diverse cultures through a series of steps including the initial, silent, individual contemplation and processing of images by viewers, and the subsequent communal act of discussing and contextualizing these images with their many implications and layers of meaning on both conscious and unconscious levels. I strongly believe that awareness, empathy and compassion are preconditions for any human transformation in a relational context. This holds true for self-transformation as well as for the conditions under which a society can evolve and transform.
From my position as an American photographer, I was looking at Nike as an African woman introducing positive change to women’s lives from within their own culture, integrating respect for longstanding crafts, visual symbols and traditions with cutting-edge thinking about women’s potential to become independent and economically empowered through art.
Nike Davies-Okundaye ‘The Power of One Woman’ Featuring photographs by Joanna Lipper
10th December 2015 – 6th February 2016
Gallery of African Art (GAFRA)
45 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4JL