7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art

Get to know some of Nigeria's women artists and their impact and contribution to the nation's history over the years.

Invisible Hands exhibition posterOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 1

#1: Ladi Kwali

Hadiza Ladi Kwali (c.1925-1984) was a native of Kwali in the Gwari region of Abuja, where pottery was the indigenous occupation of the people. As a child, Ladi learned pottery from her aunt who taught her the traditional method of coiling. She would make various utensils including cooking pots, bowls, water jars, flasks etc decorated with geometric, figurative patterns like fish, birds, crocodiles, snakes, lizards etc which were symbolic motifs of ornamentation.

Vessel (1960) by Ladi KwaliRoyal Ontario Museum

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 2

Ladi caught the attention of Michael Cardew, an English studio potter and Pottery Officer in Northern Nigeria Department of Commerce and Industry who saw her incredible pots at the house of the Emir of Abuja. In 1954, she joined Cardew’s Pottery Training Centre as the only female potter and was exposed to the western techniques of pottery making. Her style evolved into a fusion of both western and traditional Gwari techniques of pottery making. Through Cardew, Ladi became known to the world as her works were widely exhibited in galleries in Europe and America.

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 3

She was also featured in exhibitions held to mark Nigeria’s independence in 1960. Though without any formal education, Ladi was a delight to behold at demonstrations and workshops across the globe where she amazed everyone with her knowledge, skill and character. She became Africa’s best-known and foremost potter. In 1963, she was awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE); an honorary doctorate degree by Ahmadu Bello University in 1977; and a national honour of the Officer of the Order of Niger (OON) in 1981.

Invisible Hands exhibition posterOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 4

#2: Susanne Wenger

Susanne Wenger, also known as Adunni Olorisha of Osun, was an Austrian-Nigerian painter, sculptor and textile artist born in Graz, Austria in 1915. After moving to Nigeria in early 1950, Susanne dedicated the rest of her life to learning the rich culture and tradition of the Yoruba people. 

Susanne WengerThe Centenary Project

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 5

Susanne Wenger also supported and promoted the local art tradition of the people and its indigenous artists through the Oshogbo Art Workshops in the 1960s. She led the restoration of numerous sacred groves and shrines of worship of the Yoruba gods in and around Osogbo in what was known as the  “Sacred Art Movement”. 

"Tief in Dir bist Du oh Mensch der Gott” (Deep within yourself you, oh human, are the god) by Susanne WengerOriginal Source: Susanne Wenger Foundation

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 6

Susanne and a team of local artists gifted in different techniques of sculpting built solid monumental structures and sculptures at the sacred groves and shrines of worship of the people. She also made contributions to Yoruba literature by consistently writing and publishing books both in English and Yoruba languages. 

Palms of Destiny (1993) by Susanne WengerOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 7

In 2008, she was declared a Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR), a national honour by the Nigerian Government in recognition of her contributions and support to the Yoruba art, culture and history.

Agbasaga of Ogidi land, chief Nike Davies-Okundaye (2019)The Centenary Project

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 8

#3: Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye

Born in 1951, Nike Davies-Okundaye is one of Nigeria's most well-known batik and Adire artists. She has exhibited internationally, and is a champion of supporting African artists and women. She founded the Nike Art Galleries in Oshogbo, Ogidi, Abuja and Lagos.

Cycle of Life (1980) by Nike Davies-OkundayeOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 9

Mama Nike, as she is fondly called, spent three years producing this textile which is titled 'The Cycle of Life'. It was created while training at the Oshogbo School of Art under the tutelage of Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger.  The motifs and symbols depicted in the work tell the story of the pattern of life.

Invisible Hands exhibition posterOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 10

#4: Chief Constance Afiong ‘Afi’ Ekong

Constance Afiong Ekong (1930-2009) was also known as 'Afi,' and an exceptional painter. She was an artist, designer and patron of the arts. She studied art and costume history in England in the 1950s, becoming the first female Nigerian artist trained abroad. She was the first woman to have a solo exhibition in Nigeria in 1958 at the Lagos Festival of Arts Exhibition Centre. 

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 11

Afi rose to fame when her works were featured in numerous exhibitions at home and abroad. She produced Cultural Heritage, a weekly television programme promoting Nigerian art and artists in the 1960s. She was part of the founding members of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in 1964. In 1965, she opened The Bronze Gallery in Lagos which was the first private art gallery in Nigeria.

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 12

Afi was honoured with “The Star of Dame Official of the Human Order of African Redemption” in recognition of her works on promoting art and women’s education in West Africa by President William Tubman of Liberia in 1962. In 1963, she was featured in an essay in the New York Times as example of the “New African Woman”.

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 13

#5: Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu

Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu (1921-1996) was an artist, art educator and one the female pioneers of Nigerian modernism in art, whose career stood out as a result of her influence on other notable Nigerian artists. Clara started out as a teacher in mission schools between 1945-1950 before she moved to England to further her art education on scholarship. She obtained a National Diploma in Design (NDD) from the Chelsea School of Art, London in 1954 and an art teacher’s diploma from the Institute of Education, University of London in 1955. She became the first female and only Nigerian art lecturer at the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (NCAST) in 1955. 

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 14

During her time at NCAST, she taught the students (Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrapkeya, Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko etc) who went on to form the Zaria Art Society and were founders of post-colonial modernism in Nigerian art. In 1975, she was appointed state adviser for FESTAC by the federal government. Clara held solo exhibitions in the US and London and participated in numerous group exhibitions including the Independence Exhibition, Lagos (1960) and FESTAC ’77, Lagos (1977) among others. She was awarded a Fellow of Asele Institute, Nimo in 1985.

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 15

#6: Princess Elizabeth Olowu

Born 1945, Princess Elizabeth Olowu is the daughter of Oba Akenzua II of Benin and a sculptor. As a child, Elizabeth took interest in the objects in the royal court of Benin and started learning the skill of bronze sculpting alongside her mother. 

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 16

Despite superstitious believes discouraging women from venturing into such a sacred craft of men, she was encouraged by her father to chase her dreams and passion. Elizabeth is regarded as Nigeria’s first female bronze caster.  Her focus and desire as an artist is to "liberate womenfolk from the shackles of men, deprivation and taboos" and she expresses this in her works. 

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 17

#7: Asabi Bakare

Abigail Eebudola Bakare (1909-2018) was a known merchant and textile artist who learned the art of Rire and Adire (Indigo Dyeing and Tie-and-dye) from her mother. Alongside her sister, she built a successful business enterprise from the trade. Her first major breakthrough as an artist came during her participation in a workshop organized in 1975 by Augusta Sandstrom, a lecturer at the Fine Art Department of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. As a reward for her performance, she was selected to travel abroad to showcase her works. 

7 Pioneering Women of Nigerian Art 18

Bakare gave series of lectures in different institutions across Europe and America, demonstrating how Africans made their clothes before the advent of Europeans through the Adire textile. In 2017, she received the Adire Celebrity Award from the Nigerian institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in recognition of of her immense contribution over the years towards the growth and development of Adire fashion in Nigeria and globally.

Credits: Story

Solomon Nkwagu, Visitors' Services Manager, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art.

Voice over by Olufisayo Bakare, Curator of The Invincible Hands Exhibition, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Cradle of Creativity
From ancient African rock art to contemporary brushstrokes
View theme
Google apps