A NIGERIAN artist-in-training in this town of tin-roofed homes
and ornate balconies picks up a "talking drum," shaped like an
hourglass with strings on the outside.
For the sake of a disbelieving visitor, he beats out a
particular rhythm. A few seconds later, one of his friends runs up
the stairs to the balcony where we are standing and asks what the
His friend, another member of the new generation of artists
being trained here in an unusual program, had heard his name
"called" on the drum. Talking drums really do "talk." But you have
to understand the complex rhythms to hear what they are saying.
Oshogbo is one of Nigeria's best-known towns for the arts, with
many galleries, and a sacred grove of both ancient and modern giant
sculptures based on the rich culture of the Yoruba people. It is
here that Nigerian artist Nike Davies is providing high-quality
training in the arts - free of charge.
She and master teachers at her center teach wood sculpture and
relief carving, painting, embroidered tapestry, batik, adire (a
batik-like method using cassava paste instead of wax), applique
(sewing cloth on cloth), pen and ink on cloth or paper, quilting,
drummaking, and dancing.
By her training, and her marketing efforts both in Africa and
abroad, Nike is helping her students fight some of the major
challenges to African art today: a poor economy, which limits what
most Africans can afford; and a strong taste for anything Western,
including cheap, often second-hand clothing and pirated
High-quality, African-made cloth and other forms of art are also
increasingly in competition with low-quality, cheaper African-made
"A lot of Nigerian art is not good," says Alan Donovan,
co-founder and managing director of African Heritage, a major
outlet for African art, in Nairobi, Kenya.
But Mr. Donovan praises Nike. "We've sold her work for 20 years.
We have exhibitions quite often. I export some of them from Kenya."
"People can make money if we market it properly," says Nike.
But, she adds, "it's very hard to get someone to really market our
Nike markets the best works of her students, and her own
intricate batiks, through exhibitions in Kenya, the United States,
Canada, and Europe. In a show earlier this year at African
Heritage, she modeled her cloth, danced, and got members of the
audience to join the dancing. She brought with her one of the best
carvers from Nike's Center, who stayed on to fill orders.
And just as the talking drums her students make are meant to be
used, not just set on a shelf and admired, so Nike blends art and
its use, art and culture, in her training and sales. This shows
even in the name of her place here: Nike Center for Arts and
A visitor to the center is greeted not just with art on display,
but by a group of her students, men and women, dressed in cloth
they have designed, dancing to the beat of drums they have made.
Her approach reflects the reality of art in Africa, deepening
its significance beyond that of merely decorative work to be
displayed in galleries and museums.
African art is part of everyday life for its makers. For
example, in Mekele, Ethiopia, a young boy pushes a toy ambulance he
has made from scrap wires and cardboard, complete with doors that