I returned to Nigeria after three weeks in South Africa. The bitter-sweet contrast between the national mood of mourning and our exploration of the magnificant Western Cape lingered in my mind. I will return to South Africa, Gods willing.
An uneventful Kenya Airways flight from Johannesburg to Lagos via Nairobi landed at Muratala Muhammed Airport at midday. I was met by two young men from the Nike gallery. It was Sunday so the infamous Lagos traffic did not pose a problem and we arrived at Lekki in good time.
Nike's Lagos Gallery is billed as the largest in West Africa. In '06, she showed me a vacant lot in Lekki where she planned to build. The place was enclosed by a high cement block wall; wooden stakes and string described the location of the future structure. I never imagined the scale of the project she envisioned.
The exterior walls of the Gallery are enlivened with relief designs over the entire surface. On the low pitched red roof the words "Nike Gallery" are clearly visible in large letters. The building soars a full four storeys. Inside a central atrium opens the entire space to to natural light. Looking up from the ground floor, one can see the scale of the building and begin to sense the scope of the collection. Nike says there are approximately 7000 works of art on display at any one time.
The ground floor is mostly devoted to showing collaborative works by Nike and Tola Wewe. Most of the paintings are fairly large scale - on average four or five feet square. They are dense and richly layered with patterns based loosely on Yoruba adire textiles - a tradition that has been the foundation of Nike's art from the beginning of her career. The composition and style of the figures is Tola Wewe's - long necked and doe-eyed. The paintings are cooly elegant, sophisticated and very beautiful.
I recalled Nike's earliest works done in the 1970's when she was living in Twins Seven Seven's compound in Osogbo. She began her career as Seven Seven's studio assistant, although Seven Seven never admitted to his collectors that work he signed was authored by anyone but himself, personally and exclusively. Nike learned to draw in pen and ink in a convincing imitation of Seven Seven's obsessive style.
Before long, she wanted to assert herself and establish her own identity as an artist. Her challenge was to create a style distinct from Twins' work. She turned to the tradition of adire textiles. She had learned the art of adire as a child from her great grandmother, and she reasoned that translating contemporary Osogbo art into the methods and materials of the adire tradition would distinguish her work and make it her own. She came to me and explained her situation and what she needed. I happily bankrolled her purchase of materials and her career was launched.
Nike made her reputation as an fiber artist in batik. The wax resist medium enabled her to develop a distinctive color palette and she worked on a very large scale. However, her figures and compositions always strongly recalled Seven Seven's work. Her collaboration with Tola Wewe has changed that. She is now an accomplished painter. Her inexhaustible repertoire of pattern and design is grounded in the adire tradition but not constrained by it. Now she renders her patterns in paint, delicately layered and colored. The compositions and the figurative elements are primarily Wewe's. His work is focussed and tightened by her contribution to their joint pieces. Their collaborative work is equal to more than the sum of its parts.