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How A Viral Painting Changed Anthony Azekwoh’s Life

Anthony Azekwoh is a 21-year-old artist who burst onto the scene in 2020 with his viral painting, The Red Man. He talks to us about discovering his passion for expression, adapting to the ever-evolving creative landscape and how making thousands of dollars has changed him.

How would you describe what you do?

It gets harder and harder to describe as time goes by, but I’m an artist, an author and I do voice work here and there. I think “artist” might be the simplest way to describe it; I express myself through whatever medium I can. 

When did you first discover you could express yourself through art?

It was 2016, and my laptop had just broken. I’m an author, and without my laptop, I couldn’t write (because my handwriting sucks). So I took some leftover A4 paper in my parent’s house and started messing around with swirly designs.

I was 16 at the time, and I had no idea I could draw. But I showed my mum what I had done, and her face lit up. Her reaction gave me the push I needed to start drawing more.

Wait. You were a writer before you were an artist? 

Yeah. I’ve been writing for about 8 years now. Art is a fairly recent development.

I’d have never guessed. How did you start writing?

It started back in secondary school. I was 13, and I wasn’t the most academically gifted or particularly good at sports. I kept asking myself, “Bro, what exactly is your thing?”

Then we got a new teacher, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, who was a writer. You know how Nigerian parents tell you that if you become a writer, or any kind of artist, you’ll end up under the bridge? Well, here was this very cool man who followed this path and seemed genuinely happy.

That inspired me to give it a shot, and I started writing whatever I could — short stories, poetry, anything. I wrote on WordPress, Wattpad and Medium, then I’d share my stuff on Twitter. You know, back in the olden days.

LMAO. Olden days? You’re 21, my guy.

Bro, back then Twitter was still legal in Nigeria. The kids don’t know about that.

LMAO. Stop. Let’s get back to your art journey.

Yeah, so the thing about me is that I need to be doing something creative or I’m basically dead. I needed my fix, and art provided that. I was going from project to project, trying to challenge myself, and learning by watching YouTube videos.

Then the commisions started to trickle in.

Nice. Tell me about your first-ever commission.

I have writing and art, so I’ll tell you about both. My first writing commission was in 2017. My friend needed to write this 1000-word college essay, and I was, like, “Guy, just give me ₦1,500 and a bottle of Fanta, and I’ll have this done in 30 minutes.” And I did.

Then for my first art commision, it was from this American musician back in 2017 too. He paid me $60 to do his cover art, and at the time, it blew my mind. 60 DOLLARS? I felt like a millionaire. I used the money to get my first graphics tablet.  

Did this make you start considering art as a viable way to make money?

At all. I’m a stubborn man, so it still wasn’t dawning on me that this was the path. I was making money but still asking, “What am I going to do with my life?” I was studying Chemical Engineering at Covenant University, and that didn’t help.

When you’re living in a home that’s telling you “Art is cool, but you need a proper job,” and you’re now in a school that’s telling you the same thing, you start to internalise it. 

Thankfully, God kept knocking my head and telling me to wake up. As time passed, I kept getting more commissions and even started winning cash prizes for my work. That’s when my eyes began to really open.

How much did you win?

In 2017, I won ₦70,000. I wasn’t as lucky in 2018. Then in 2019, I won a $1,000 grant for my writing. That was around ₦351k — I still remember the conversion rate because I could have sworn I was the governor of Lagos. I was so excited. 

Around that time, my average commission was between ₦20k and ₦50k. I wasn’t exactly getting good commissions because my work wasn’t cover art standard. Anyone who needed one would think of Duks, Duro, Niyi and Renike before me. 

I was younger, so working with me was a higher risk. Then 2020 happened.

What happened in 2020?

For one, 2020 was the first time in four years I wasn’t in school for a long period of time. It was my IT period, and it only took me a week at my place of work to realise that the 9 to 5 life wasn’t for me. I hated it so much.

Then the pandemic hit, and I was so glad I didn’t have to go to work anymore. This was when Wale of Show Dem Camp hit me up to do the video cover for “Do Me Nice,” and it went well. I was, like, “Yes, I’m that guy.” 

After a few months, Adekunle Gold hit me up to work on a cover, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was around that same time I posted my painting, The Red Man, which went viral [It has over 220k likes on Twitter]. That was when my life changed.

How so?

See, it didn’t just change things financially, it also changed things mentally. That was the first time I said to myself that art isn’t just a side mission, it’s THE mission. When the print sales from The Red Man came in, that was my first million naira. 

It was so interesting to me because the work I had done with all these big stars hadn’t done as much for me as the work I did for myself. Working with celebrities is high-intensity because they need things fast.

When I was working on The Red Man, I was just vibing in my room. So, mentally, it was easier to do my own work and function at my own pace. But, of course, that came with its own wahala.

What kind of wahala?

I had just turned 20 two months prior, and suddenly I had to figure out how to manage a business. Thousands of people were telling me to print the painting, and other people were already asking for a sequel, The Red Woman.

LMAO. Come on. 

It was a lot, but when you find yourself in the middle of the ocean, you just have to swim.

So, have you settled into a rhythm now?

Yeah, to some degree. I know how much I make from prints. I still do commissions, but I only work with artists I love like Blaqbonez, Wani, Show Dem Camp, Simi, Adekunle Gold and Masego. 

Then I discovered NFTs and crypto art, and that opened up a whole new world of possibilities. So, now, I’ve settled into this new reality, but with the way the world evolves, I see it shaking up again in a few months. Then I’ll adapt.

Out of all the many, many things you do, what brings you the most money?

Definitely the NFTs.

And the least?

Commissions for artists. I mean it’s good money, don’t get me wrong, but it definitely brings in the least money for me. It’s something I do because I like it. Then right above that is selling prints.

Interesting. How much do you make from selling NFTs?

On average, somewhere between $1,000 and $6,000. 

Damn.

But it’s not really about the money. I learnt that after I made my first million. I kept trying to recreate what happened with The Red Man so I could be counting millions every month, but everything flopped. I was, like, “Am I a one-painting wonder?”

Then, after a while, I had another hit with Yasuke, and I fell into the same trap of trying to recreate that. Of course they all flopped, too. It took me a while to realise that I had to stop chasing hits and just do the work.

Smart man. So, how did making this much money impact your spending?

I’ve never been a big spender, so it’s not like I started buying chains and whatnot. I could just do more stuff in my parent’s house. I could now buy barbeque sauce because my mum used to hide her own.

LMAO. Please.

Yes. Even when I went grocery shopping, I could now afford to look at Häagen-Dazs in the ice-cream section. I could order whatever I wanted at a restaurant without worrying that my card would decline. It’s a nice feeling. 

I also moved out recently. I like that I can support myself. 

Love that for you.

The money also made me more empathetic. I could see the financial gaps more clearly, especially in the Lagos creative scene. When I sold my first NFT, I couldn’t sleep. I was, like, “See all this money sitting in my PiggyVest, and there’s someone out here who needs just 0.1% to turn their career around.”

Two months later, I launched the Anthony Azekwoh fund, where a percentage of everything I sell is dropped into the fund. Then every year, we give out the money to a number of Nigerian artists who need it. This year, we’ve given N300k to three individual artists. 

That’s really great, man. Any advice for up-and-coming artists?

I’ve learnt that getting what you want and being happy are two different things. I thought the success of The Red Man would make me happy, but I was crumbling under the pressure. I was in a very dark place; it was horrible. 

I had always just assumed that if art worked out, everything would fall into place. That wasn’t the case. So, my advice to artists: sure, strive for success, but don’t expect that to magically fix everything else. It doesn’t work like that.

You can catch his last exhibition of the year on the 11th and 12th of December.

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