Of Mice and Men: Words for the Nigerian Digital Artist

An artist, if they’re good at it, should never behave like a commodity.”

-Dave Chappelle

I show my mother and she beams. She likes the drawings, she says. They’re pretty, she continues. And something about that interaction, the beauty of the immediacy in connection–something you don’t get in writing — hooks me.

But I can go further.

I steal my little sister’s mouse, download a cracked version of Illustrator, and scan the drawing I’ve of the elephant into my laptop. I vectorise it, add grass, and a signature I made up — “AAA” for Anthony Azekwoh Arts, following the footsteps of the greats: Duks Arts, Duro Arts.

It doesn’t occur to me but I’ve just opened a new door for myself.

This was 6 years ago, and I was just 16, my life changing forever.

The next few months are spent hunting. Not for sport, but for teachers.

There’s a cover for an artiste, Charles Nkanga, that I’ve seen, but it’s weird, it’s not vector art I’m used to…It’s something else. I look at the cover for hours, and then days, trying to see between this dragon and lovers a truth I know is eluding me.

Cover by Etubi Onucheyo, “Mumu Illustrator”

I reverse search the image, and find Etubi Onucheyo, “Mumu Illustrator”, go through his work, study him. And then I come upon this phrase, one that I actually hadn’t seen before. One that opens up a new door.

Digital painting.

I message him immediately, and ask for advice and he’s really cool about the whole thing and tells me everything he can.

I continue my journey, delving deeper into the digital art history of Nigeria.

That’s where I find Duks’ (now Sir Duksalot’s) work, that shines in angled brush strokes and insane colourscapes. He is, as far as I know, the earliest knight fighting the good fight for digital art in Nigeria. Instant follow, instant dm. From him I learn about Duro, famous for his Bun x Belly and Davido covers at the time, whose knowledge of form and humour is off the charts. Same thing. Instant follow. Instant dm.

Bun x Belly and Lupita Nyong’o by Duro Art

Niyi Okeowo is a different breed entirely. It’s not digital painting, his work, that much I can figure out at the time. His work is digital, but I don’t know, it’s different, sleek. With Duks and Duro you can see the edges, the strokes and the brushwork, but with Niyi? His work challenged a barely minted worldview of what digital art was, and came to show me that boundaries were nothing more than stepping stones.I don’t get it, but I love it.

Indigo Child by Niyi Okeowo

I’m young and I don’t have anyone to put me through, my time in university is a mess and I’m depressed, but these guys I find are like teachers to me, and more, big brothers and sisters I never knew I’d get.

Sisters.

Renike’s work with textures was crazy from the jump, combined with the way she handled black skin, making us look and feel beautiful. Her work makes me feel good. Adanna was doing work that I had only ever seen on Deviant Art but with an African spin and flavour, combining a western design language with ours, she’s one of the first visual translators I’ve seen, shifting cultures at will.

Ihuoma by Renike
Test by Adxnna

Then Chigozie. It’s 2017 and I’m at this event in Lagos I was invited to read my work at (I’m still known more as a writer) and at the corner is someone painting, but live and it blows my mind. I didn’t grow up sensitised to art, I actually failed art in school, so this is the first time I’ve seen an artist I’ve seen an artist up close, forging a story, an experience, and pulling it from a blank canvas for everyone around her to see. Her brushstrokes are confident, calm. Room full of people but she’s cool as ice. I connect with her immediately.

Ihuoma by Renike

Juls is otherworldly, and I connect with her through a friend in 2020 who exclaims proudly “NKJuls follows you!”. Naturally, my next question is “Who’s Juls?”, and with a few taps the answer becomes clear as day. Her work is nothing short of ethereal, a gateway into another world. One which leaves me speechless — and admittedly at the time, insecure.

Aftergrowth by Juls

Because there I was, surrounded by huge talents developed from years and years of training, and then there was me, who accidentally tripped and fell into art a couple years ago. Was I worthy to even stand next to these giants?

The hunt for masters and teachers continued regardless, and would take me all the way to America where I discovered Sam Spratt, whose work with visual languages was nothing short of masterful. (I would actually cross paths with Sam years later, but that’s a story for another time). His work is a major inspiration to me, perfectly bridging the gap between traditional and digital, then demolishing the boundary altogether.

Under Pressure Cover by Sam Spratt

Quadri is simply incredible. I discovered his work through the covers he made for Rema, and he’s someone who keeps killing the design game. Shapes and colours that feel like they’re from a whole other universe, of his making alone.

Won Da Mo cover by Quadri

Niyi’s work starts to make more sense when I reconnect with Ebube Onoh, who I knew from my secondary school, who is able to do this magical thing of blending 3d worlds in a way that makes visual sense in a storytelling manner. His work blows my mind everytime and we work together on a couple projects.

Our Love by Ebube Onoh

TSE was an artist who I’d heard whispers about, the rogue practitioner who followed his own rules and carved his own path, dropping out and rolling through things his own way. We connected when I found myself in a similar position, and he had nothing but comfort to give. His work is like that of a traveller, coming through The Void, and telling us all it’s found. It’s futuristic, yet nostalgic at the same time.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II by TSE

And then, it all starts to make sense, what my friend, C Emeka had been doing all those years ago, putting exhibitions up on his own in Lagos, bringing all of us together. He’s one of the first artist I saw taking risks like that.

The first I met was Mayowa, Shutabug, at my first digital art exhibition in 2017 I believe. He’s another artist I see who is boldly claiming the digital artist tag, turning it into something people can understand, winning prizes and just being an all round great guy.

By Shutabug

And then NFT’s brought me to Osinachi, whose work was as complex as it was easy to understand. Simple shapes, unique characters, digital, but all with Microsoft Word. A magician, if there ever was one.

What the Statue Says by Osinachi

The years would bring me to artists like Nengi, Jekein, Kiel, BadOats, Rume, Sylvia, Kodak and loads of other talented Nigerians doing great work. And suddenly it’s like there’s a huge family of art being formed and made. One that’s imperfect, that fights, but is joined together by this service to a craft bigger than either of us. This new and bright field of digital art, and what it can mean for us, and those after us.

All the artists I admired I would follow and DM with a simple message that went something like “Hi, I’m Anthony, a young artist and I really love your work. Please could you show me how to…”

And almost always they’d reply, taking time out of their day to show me some trick or the other. Something I’ve never taken for granted.

Even Duro, notoriously busy, came through for me at the perfect time, when a painting of mine had gone viral two years ago and in our first interaction we spent hours on the phone and he told me every single thing he could about this strange world I had gotten myself into.

This meant the world to me. Duro could’ve seen me walking into the fire and shrugged. But instead, he took time out to talk to this confused, scared 20 year old whose life was changing faster than he could accommodate.

I get anxious sometimes, a lot of self doubt creeps in that I’ve had to fight through. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept my mouth shut about this issue for a while. I mean, who the hell am I to tell anyone what to do?

But, I don’t know, a lot of what I’m seeing just doesn’t make too much sense. All that time I spent growing and learning, I had the comfort of doing that without asking myself the dreaded question of “What is my art worth?” I just fucked around and found out on my own, really. But I feel that with where the NFT space and the economy as a whole is right now, I can see that other Artists cannot enjoy that same luxury, of having to continually put work out into the world and worry that others will see it as less valuable than they who laboured to create it.

I am deeply skeptical of this new art society that’s been formed, one that’s based on sales and collector bases and likes and retweets and metrics that really and truly, I don’t think have anything to do with the work.

NFT’s have quite literally changed the lives of myself and the people around me. We have gone from people making art which was considered intangible and valueless due to the fact that it was “just” digital, into people able to stand on their own 2 feet and build lives for themselves. Pay bills, take care of their people. Live life, all off the strength of their passions. It has removed gatekeepers and democratised Art in a way that has opened the doors to thousands who dream of creating, and revolutionised the way we consider the term ‘Artist’. All of those are beautiful, immeasurable benefits.

But I am deeply skeptical of this new art society that’s being formed in our community, one that, much like the traditional Art world it once aimed to distance itself from, bases value solely on sales and collector bases, and likes and retweets and metrics that really and truly, I don’t think have anything to do with the actual work or its quality.

This was something that already deeply bothered me two years ago, when I first learned about the term, “NFT”. I wondered if, in doing this, what type of precedent I would set to people looking for answers, finding my work, and only being able to see the price tag attached? Would the actions of myself and others, stunt the growth of a whole ecosystem making them produce “Work” and “drops” instead of pieces they loved? Instead of Art? Would this new ecosystem of dollars signs and .eth make people feel like they had to measure up to some invisible standard in order to be “successful”?

I’ve been broke before.

My first pen display I couldn’t even buy myself because the money from prints hadn’t come in yet, and my friend Tofunmi Kupoluyi helped me out. Omimi gave me my first iPad to draw on at a crazy discount. I remember vividly what it felt like to not have enough to do the things I wanted to do, and my God, that fear of going back drove me for many nights and days and years into a direction that I couldn’t recognise anymore. Where I couldn’t recognise myself anymore.

Was I an artist or a tool of this new ecosystem, made to pump new work at an inhuman pace, one that broke my mind, body and spirit, for the sake of money and acclaim?

But this ecosystem I criticize, am I not partly responsible for it’s facilitation? Even all that happened with the controversy this year, though painful, I understood where that came from, that frustration, that anger, but thoughts and thoughts. Visions and dreams.

Thoughts, thoughts. Visions and dreams.

What do the pieces of the puzzle mean?

Not sure, honestly. There’s a lot of things I don’t know, but I do know that I don’t believe in a future where you have to make thousands of dollars to be the next big thing. Where you have to be rich to be sought after. I look back now and realize I was successful years ago, from the very first time I showed my mother that drawing and she smiled. I was successful when I sent her a birthday present, all I’d made from the sale of that same drawing, 5 years later.

And as I move forward in life, growing older in age and wisdom, I realise the money has never been the reason I’m here, and I’m simply blessed to exist in a time where me and my extended family can make art on screens, and still be seen as Artists in our own right.

And the money, the acclaim? Welcome side effects.

Never been why we’ve done anything.

And I can only wish the same for you.

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Anthony Azekwoh

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.