Mothership: Can you tell us about your self-portrait? Love these lines of gold like life force surfacing…
Anthony Azekwoh: Yes! I love that one—it’s actually a favourite. It’s inspired by this Japanese tradition, Kintsugi, the art of “repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique.”
I just felt that I’d been through a lot this year and in many ways, part of had shattered and broken, but painting was a way to bring the pieces of myself together but that didn’t mean the breaks wouldn’t show.
They still did, I am just not reduced by them. Instead, I’m empowered.
Mothership: How long have you been drawing? And what was your training.
Azekwoh: For four years. Oh, self. I learnt through books, Youtube, and from other amazing artists online.
Mothership: Can you share about your medium?
Azekwoh: I paint digitally—I adapted to this because paint and canvas were really expensive and I needed an inexpensive way to learn and experiment.
Mothership: What started you down this road? And what keeps you going?
Azekwoh: My laptop broke four years ago and seeing that I couldn’t write, I started drawing with some ink pens and leftover A4 paper. As for keeping going, I love it. With all my heart. And I love telling stories.
Mothership: In terms of your artistic influences, I see you have done a portrait of Stan Lee, which like you own, sports a halo. Can you share more about how comics have influenced your artistic style?
Azekwoh: Ouuu, this is a good one. I love Watchmen and Alex Ross’s work. And Jack Kirby, and Frazetta.
Mothership: What about other illustrators/painters, etc?
Azekwoh: I love golden age American illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Albert Dorne, Howard Pyle. I love French Academic and neoclassic artists like Jacque-Louis David and William Bouguerau. Drew Struzan. James Gurney. I also love Sam Spratt, Duks Arts and Duro Arts.
Anyone who makes honest work, truly. I’m a lover of all.
Mothership: Do you find that other art influences your work in subtle ways, even if it doesn’t look like your work at a surface level.
Azekwoh: Oh yes, Works of Christopher Nolan for instance and his juxtaposition of imagination over reality in his work have greatly inspired me. And also the great discipline of athletes of Kobe Bryant.
Mothership: As for your subject matter, you go to old roots, Igbo gods, Yoruba gods, Jesus. Can you say more about these potent figures’ place in your work? In Nigeria today? And, beyond? (After all, we are connected across borders, so you are talking to folks all over the world…)
Azekwoh: Yes, I think the effect of colonization on my land has been catastrophic, erasing history like that and preventing the later generation from learning their own roots.
I paint them because I feel they deserve a space in the modern age, and the current and later generations deserve to know of these figures in a context closer to home.
Mothership: Can you tell us about Ala? What balances does she keep?
Azekwoh: She is the goddess of the Earth and Justice. It used to be that back in Igbo land, a crime against another, was a crime against the earth, and hence, Ala. She is also a fertility goddess in some parts.
Mothership: Beautiful—this sad strength in this Jesus’s face. These sense of sorrow at the world. Sadly, the idea of “justice” is so misused, but here we a sense of sorrow. Feels like returning to roots of what this figure means.
Azekwoh: Yes, when I painted him, I wanted to steer away from the divine expression and focus on a representation that was more…human.
Mothership: Your work also includes more earthly power figures, Herbert Macauley, who helped spark the Nigerian independence movement, medieval emperor of Mali empire, Mansa Musa, Cleopatra. With figures like Macauley, it feels like your art makes the history of these amazing people come alive. Do you see growing interest and awareness of revolutionary figures like Macauley? Or were you raised with it? Can you share about the Umu Biafra project?
Azekwoh: Yes, Imoh Umoren has a movie, The Herbert Macaulay Affair that I think is wonderful. In Nigeria, history isn’t taught and I feel that this destroys the culture, erodes it slowly. Most Nigerians, and Africans, aren’t brought up to feel proud of our heritage and it upsets me sometimes, because we have so, so much.
Umu Biafra (https://www.umubiafra.com/) is a project started by a good friend of mine, Lotanna, with the aim of retelling the events of the Biafran genocide to a generation that had never truly learnt the true horrors of those years because it just isn’t something that’s talked about. I created some paintings and covers for the project and I was very happy to be involved.
Mothership: You also have some fun painting popular figures like Donald Glover, Nigerian pop musicians, AG Baby and Teni the Entertainer. Can you say more about music in your art, in your life? And in the life of a culture, the consciousness of a culture?
Azekwoh: Music is a great inspiration to me, something about the layering and the process of production has always been so deeply interesting to me. I feel like artists have this special power to grab us exactly where we need to be touched. They’re like soothsayers, I feel. I admire them a lot.
Mothership: We come to your marvelous series of people, starting perhaps with the Red Man(?) Can you tell us about how you started this series? Was it with Red Man?
Azekwoh: Oh God, this painting….it changed my life, really.
And it was a mistake.
I had finally gotten some new RAM on my laptop and I wanted to paint something bigger and a bit more detailed than what I usually do. Artists have this thing called studies where we pick an area, maybe values (shades of black and white), colour, or shapes even.
The Red Man was originally a black and white study of this photo I had on my laptop (that’s why the face is monochrome) but as I went on, it started to turn into something else and I just went with the flow. It was maybe 2am, I was on a call with my friend, Pearl, and I was just really, really tired and wanted to sleep. I looked at the eyes, which I hadn’t filled properly yet and just shrugged.
The next day, I thought about whether I should post it because it looked so unfinished to me. But I did, and my world changed for the better. It was amazing.
Mothership: And these people of this series, The Jade Woman, the Orange Father, the Yellow Queen feel so magical, and I find myself thinking of books, stories, folktales, that give you inspiration(?)
Azekwoh: They were very spontaneous and natural. So much so that I can’t tell exactly where they came from. All I know for sure is that they are me, and I am them. They came from everything I had ever watched, or read, or heard. And I love them.
Mothership: I understand you write stories too with a recent series, “The Witches of Auchi” in Brittle Paper, a wonderful journal of contemporary African literature. Can you say more about your writing? Any plans to do graphic novels? Or illustrate your stories…?
Azekwoh: I’ve actually been writing a lot more than I’ve been painting and it’s something I’m very proud of—the progress I’ve made with my work. My writing, to me, is just a distillation of who I am and my thoughts and wants and needs to see more stories with people like me represented on a larger scale.
Mothership: Nigeria is known as a home of amazing authors. We think of Okri’s Famished Road and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and younger writers like Okorafor and Oyeyemi with Nigerian roots. Can you share about some Nigerian writers whose work you are excited by? Or more broadly, would you tell us of African writers to look for beyond Nigeria’s borders?
Azekwoh: Oh, I love so many of them but Nnedi Okorafor is definitely a writer that has been life-changing to me, along with Kola Tubosun, who was my English teacher. The prescence of these two figures changed the trajectory of my life in so many ways that I can’t even explain.
There are so many other African writers I feel, who the world would be better paying attention to. Like Chigozie Obioma for instance who writes amazingly. Along with Lesley Nneka Arimah whose work arrests me every time.
Mothership: Any last thoughts on art-making, art’s place in the world today?
Art is magic, it’s in the world, and the world itself. All we see, all we are, is based on perception. We see things based on past experiences, based on how we feel.
But art, it does this amazing thing: it forces us to look outside of ourselves. It shows us more.
It changes our perception. And that in turn changes our world.
My life, I look at it now, would be unimaginable without this work. It has saved and changed my life.
I could have been in a dark, dark place now.