Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

22 January 2016

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye visits the British Library’s West Africa exhibition

Around two thirds of the way through the British Library's exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, visitors turn a corner to be greeted with a six foot burst of yellow: a spectacular artwork entitled ‘Feminine Power’, made up of dozens of intricate drawings depicting proverbs, symbols and meanings from West African culture.  

The artwork was created by two artists, Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye and Tola Wewe. Last month Chief Nike was in the UK for the opening of her new London show, and was kind enough to visit the Library and give us a short interview about the inspiration behind the artwork.

DSC02867 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye standing next to her artwork Feminine Power (photo by Tony Antoniou)

Tell us about the symbols in your artwork – what do they mean?

A lot of the faces in the piece represent the feminine which is why the piece is called ‘Feminine Power’. When you go to Nigeria the power of the woman is stronger, and every man who comes to the world comes through woman.

The wall gecko is a symbol of peace. If you have a lizard in your home, it means you have a peaceful home since at the slightest vibration they will run away. Many people are scared of them but you need to find space in your heart for a lizard too, because there is always love and peace in your home if a lizard is there.

The sunshine symbol is one I made up myself, it means ‘don’t let someone block out your sunshine’. Women's faces
Close up cropped image of faces in 'Feminine Power'

What does the subtitle of our exhibition, ‘Word, Symbol, Song’ mean to you in terms of your own work?

It means so much to me because this is like a memory come true. We are losing these symbols and you [the British Library] are bringing them back to life for us. These symbols represent our heritage, our roots, and our everyday culture.

What was your experience of walking through the exhibition?

I just feel like this is my roots. The first item that spoke to me was àrokò [messages made of symbolic objects such as cowrie shells and seeds which were sent between kings]. My father always said ‘send àrokò to the King’. It is always wrapped in a special bag and then they would send it, but they never opened it in the presence of people, and I never really knew what àrokò was. Today is my first day seeing àrokò and this is a good memory for me. And seeing our work here put here at the Library, I am very happy and honoured.

I will be telling people who are coming from Nigeria to come and see your roots, come to the British Library.

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An àrokò message of peace sent by the King of Ìjẹbú to the King of Lagos on the occasion of his restoration in 1851, on display in the West Africa exhibition. Each element in this string of cowries and seeds has meaning, for example the kernel in the middle indicates ‘what is good for me is good for you’. (On loan from Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)

You can see more of Chief Nike Okundaye-Davies' work in a new exhibition,‘The Power of One Woman’ at the Gallery of African Art until 6 February.

'Feminine Power' is on display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library until 16 February.

Interview by Sophie McIvor.


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