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Nigeria's 'Mama Nike' empowers women through art

From Christian Purefoy, CNN
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Leading the Nigerian renaissance
  • Nike Davies Okundaye is Nigeria's most famous traditional textile designer
  • Her artwork has sold for thousands of dollars at international auction houses
  • The artist teaches her techniques to disadvantaged women

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Nigerian artist Nike Davies Okundaye.

(CNN) -- Award-winning designer Nike Davies Okundaye has pioneered a global revival of Nigeria's ancestral dark blue cloth-dyeing art.

Displayed in major international exhibitions, her colorful creations share the themes from her Yoruba culture with the rest of the world.

While the veteran textile designer has enjoyed success abroad, her attention is focused on her homeland, where she's embarked on a mission to improve the lives of disadvantaged Nigerian women through art.

At her workshop in southwest Nigeria, Okundaye teaches the unique techniques of indigo cloth dyeing, also known as Adire, to rural women. By doing so, she's hoping to revive not just the centuries-old tradition, but the lives of these women as well.

West Africa's largest art gallery
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"When they come there, it is free for them. They can eat and they can also discover themselves as an artist," says Okundaye, or "Mama Nike," as she's called by the women.

"And I always arrange exhibition for them, so they will be able to sell their work, not only to just do the work."

The designer says it's critical these women, many of whom are struggling mothers, desperate to pay for their children's food and education, understand the business of art as well as to learn how to manage their resources.

Teaching them how to manage their money "is a very important thing," she says. They have to be able to save for a rainy day and keep a little in the bank so they can buy medicine if they get sick, she says.

Okundaye's unique approach of fusing traditional styles with modern techniques has established her as a household name in textile design. Her artwork has won several accolades and has sold for thousands of dollars at international art auctions.

It's a long way from her humble beginnings growing up in southwest Nigeria. Okundaye, who lost her mother and grandmother at a young age, was introduced to the craft of traditional weaving and fabric dyeing, by her great-grandmother.

"My great-grandmother started teaching me how to weave -- from weaving to embroidery, embroidery to Adire, Adire to painting, painting to patchwork," she says.

I cannot see myself retiring, I can see myself going on.
--Nike Davies Okundaye, artist
  • Nigeria
  • Art Galleries
  • Painting

Okundaye's natural talent soon blossomed, but her foray into the art world wasn't easy. In 1968, she began selling her creations from her bedroom, which served as a makeshift gallery.

"That is how I started the first gallery and the backyard was my workshop -- I was very proud of this shop," she says.

Four decades on, Okundaye is the proud owner of West Africa's largest art gallery in Lagos, which attracts customers from around the world.

Okundaye draws her spiritual and artistic inspiration from Nigeria's river goddess Osun, who guides her work through dreams, she says.

"Nobody sees the goddess face to face, but you can see her in your dream. And sometime it talks to me in my dream.

"Immediately I dream and I wake up, I will quickly sketch it, because if I have to wait, it may go off my head. So the river has made a lot of impact because a lot of what I draw is about female who do the worshipping."

The 59-year-old says she still obtains pleasure from creating her art and has no plans to slow down.

"I cannot see it as hard work anymore," says Okundaye. "I see it as pleasure, that is where I get my own pleasure.

"As far as I'm alive," she says, there is no retirement. "The retirement is death now," she says with a laugh. "I cannot see myself retiring, I can see myself going on."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.