OSHOGBO, NIGERIA — 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 drummer wants.
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 musical-cassette tapes.
High-quality, African-made cloth and other forms of art are also increasingly in competition with low-quality, cheaper African-made art.
"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 work properly."
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 Culture.
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 open. In Ngora, Uganda, three boys stop along a village path to sing, spontaneously for visitors, playing traditional, one-string ukelele-like instruments.
In Cotonou, Benin, A. Jean Godjo Sonon paints posters for local barbers, depicting the various hairstyles they can offer customers. When he's caught up on orders, he paints self-portraits.
In Nairobi, the wooden walls of many kiosks, tiny road-side stalls, are hand-painted with stylistic landscapes or portraits.
Art in Africa, in its many forms, helps dispel the image of Africa as simply a land of famine, war, and corruption. It makes life not only more tolerable, but also more amusing, exciting, and inspiring.
Nike not only gives aspiring artists free training, but she also provides them with materials.
"I don't want to be rich in my life," she said in a Monitor interview. "When I was young, I suffered so much." Her mother died when she was six; her grandmother died the next year. She was raised by her great grandmother, who was head of the village crafts group and showed Nike how to make indigo dyes from local vegetables.
A three-day visit here found no shortage of creativity among Nike's students and an exuberance on their part for quality artwork.
Most of them are high-school graduates from local families.
Waheed Osaka "The Great," one of Nike's students, says he sometimes looks at blank walls and imagines illustrating them with brightly-colored, mythical figures from the Yoruba culture for his next works.
He started creating art in 1982, in secondary school. "I was able to do something that would surprise people," he says, looking up from a wooden relief sculpture.
"The Great" worked for a construction company for two years, but now he's convinced he can earn more money as an artist. At Nike's, he has learned batik, sculptural painting, and use of pen and ink on cloth and paper. "I like everything," he says with a smile.
Sole Faleye has been doing wood carvings for 15 years, including large drums. "I really like the work," he says, sitting on the floor of a small room behind Nike's gallery, where he teaches younger carvers. His grandfather was also a carver.
Kemi Akinwale sketches ideas for her batiks with a pencil. "I just bring the designs from my head," she says. She began studying at Nike's in 1988 after secondary school. Originally she planned to go to medical school, but her grades were not good enough.
"When I finish here, I will travel," she says, with an eye to going abroad. Her batiks are beginning to sell. Meanwhile, she lives in cramped quarters in one of the studios at the gallery with 20 other of Nike's students.
This year, more than 150 students are participating in Nike's training program. Most of them do their artwork in the evenings. Many live at home.
Quality art was "dying out," in Nigeria, Nike says. Her own efforts are aimed at helping "bring it back into life," she says.
"It's working, little by little," she says.
* For further information, contact Nike Center for Arts & Culture; P.O. Box 911, Oshogbo, Nigeria.