In December 2016, Anthony Azekwoh’s laptop crashed. He had used the laptop to write short stories, which he submitted to his school’s magazine. Azekwoh became distraught: he didn’t have good handwriting and disliked writing longhand but he inherently felt an urge to express himself creatively. He took some A4 papers and gel pens and began drawing.
“I started by drawing designs and [looking] at a picture on the internet and [trying] to draw it,” the 21-year-old says. “I showed my mom and she was like, ‘Wow. This is nice.’ That gave me a lot of confidence. After my laptop got fixed, I started looking at artists who used to draw with their laptops.”
Azekwoh watched YouTube videos and read books, discovering digital artists and their styles. He fell in love with the works of the American artist Sam Spratt and the Nigerian artists Duro Arts and Duks Art. Over time, he sharpened his skills and his works became more detailed, resulting in paintings like portraits of the late American Marvel Comics mogul Stan Lee, the departed Nigerian politician Herbert Macaulay and the Nigerian singer Teni.
Azekwoh’s newfound love for visual art didn’t harm his affection for the written word. In 2017, he was a joint winner of the Awele Creative Trust Award for his short story ‘The Fall of the Gods’. Two years later, he won the $1,000 Loose Conversations Short Story Competition with five short stories on the themes of history, heritage, pride, body enhancement, and prejudice. He has written poems and essays. In May 2020, he published his first book STAR, a novella of magical realism.
In early 2020, in a bid to break off from his influences and chart his course, Azekwoh started a series of paintings titled The Deathless. The paintings, seven in all, featured mystical-like figures with no eyes. The black-and-white texture of the figures, which contrasted with the varying background colours, lent them a haunting appearance. The series’ first image ‘The Red Man’ achieved a massive appeal on the internet—currently, it has over 44,000 retweets and over 230,000 likes on Twitter.
Azekwoh admits that the success of ‘The Red Man’ put pressure on him. “I learnt that sometimes you might want something so badly but unfortunately you are not ready for it,” he says. “At that time, I had succeeded in a way but I was woefully unprepared.”
In three days, Azekwoh created a website and brushed up his social media pages. He started to acquaint himself with the concept of money management, saying, “Everybody had always talked to me about what will happen if this fails. But nobody had ever spoken to me about what happens if this worked.”
And here is a thread of little facts about The Deathless I never shared.
The Red Man was initially a black and white study I added a red background to. Painted it overnight while I was on the phone with a friend.
Didn’t know how it’d turn out, but it changed my life. pic.twitter.com/Zdajbgt7AK
— Anthony Azekwoh (@AnthonyAzekwoh) March 17, 2021
As a child, Azekwoh loved reading about history and cultures. Those two, he claims, spark his mind. He loves painting images and writing stories based on them. He has done paintings on Yasuke, an African samurai, and Mansa Musa, the richest man who ever lived; captured the rocky past of the Biafran people; celebrated the memory of Jesus Christ. His short story ‘The Garden of Old Lagos’ is an Afro-futuristic version of the Adam and Eve story in the bible.
In an interview with ARTISH, Azekwoh mentioned neoclassical painter Jacque-Louis David’s ‘The Death of Marat’ and American abstract painter Mark Rothko’s ‘Red on Maroon’ are some of his influences.
“A lot of my painting just comes from that place of wanting to be seen,” Azekwoh reveals. “I can see myself in all of these paintings.”
Outside his paintings, Azekwoh sees and cares about the community of Nigerian creatives. This year he founded the Anthony Azekwoh Fund (AAF), which will, every year, give ₦200, 000 to four Nigerian creatives between the ages of 15 and 25. Nigerian visual artist Nengi Uranta won the first fund in May, worth ₦50, 000.
“I don’t believe in hoarding, especially when it comes to resources,” Azekwoh, who finances AAF from his pocket, says. “I have accrued a lot but to me, all of that is nothing if I’m not a better person in the process. It’s nothing if the community is not better in the process.”
Azekwoh recognizes he is a member of a growing list of Nigerian creatives—artists, musicians, photographers, writers, filmmakers—who have populated the creative space with their bold and awe-inspiring work. Some of these creatives—Renike, Chigozie Obi, Niyi Okeowo, Ebube Onoh, Etubi Onucheyo—are Azekwoh’s favourites. He has worked with acts like Adekunle Gold, Haile Supreme, Show Dem Camp, and Masego. Recently, he designed the album cover for Nigerian rapper Blaqbonez’s Sex Over Love.
On some days, Azekwoh wakes up unmotivated and uneager to practice writing or visual art but he is resilient, soldiering through periods of sullenness.
“Art is, to me, anything that can take you out of that bubble into someone else’s and change your world forever,” he says. “What keeps me going is that I have to dig deep and believe that something I am doing is worthwhile and if it is able to change just one person’s life, one person’s perception, then I feel like I have been successful, even if that one person is myself.”
Since he found great success, Azekwoh’s life has changed, opening him up to many experiences and lessons. “[One of] the things that have helped me is being honest to myself,” he says. “Honesty is very hard. To be honest about the kind of work you want, not the kind of work you think people would want from you. There’s a big difference.
“[Also], if you are coming to art or writing for money, my opinion is [that] there are easier ways to make money that will break your heart less. If you are coming for money, if you are coming for validation, you will get them but that’s all you’ll get. You don’t get peace, you don’t get happiness, you don’t get stability. These things don’t come included; you have to work on those independently.
What I am also learning now is resting. When your body is telling you to stop and you don’t listen, one day your body will stop and you’d have to listen.”
Now, Azekwoh is writing more than he is painting. He says this is because he got a publishing deal for a novel titled The Dark Prince. “Next year, who knows, maybe I’ll be directing a movie, or acting, or something,” he says. “To me, creativity is less about me being identified as a particular craftsman and more about me just being able to do things that interest me in any form.
“One day, I want to be able to make music. I want to be able to make a short film. I want to be able to wake up and start acrobatics. Just [to] always be free and have fun.”
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has works on Lolwe and Isele Magazine.