What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up. Man Like is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
In 2020, Anthony Azekwoh’s life changed forever when his painting, The Red Man, became a viral sensation taking over social media and capturing the attention of the global art community. At 21 years old, Anthony has established himself as one of the biggest digital artists on the continent, selling out copies of his work worldwide and leading the conversation surrounding African art on the global NFT space. But with this success comes a lot of pressure, doubt and fear of being a “one-hit wonder”.
In this episode of Man Like, he talks about dropping out of university despite his parents’ disapproval, surviving his first heartbreak, and how he tried but failed to recreate the magic of his most popular painting, The Red Man.
Tell me about what it was like growing up?
I’d say I had a very quiet and uneventful childhood. I’m the eldest of three kids, we lived in Surulere, my school was on the same street as my house and we had a lot of family living around. It was a contained experience.
The only highlight I can think of was the time I got hit by a motorcycle when I was eight.
Omo, what happened?
So, there are two versions of this story. My version is that I was coming back from school with my mum and younger sister, and then this motorcycle came out of nowhere and hit me. The second version is from an uncle who lived on our street. He claims I ran towards the motorcycle, which I believe may have been possible, but I don’t want to believe it. LOL. I was rushed to the hospital, and they patched me up. After that, life continued and I’m here today.
I’m sorry, man. You talk about your university experiences on your blog. How did your time in Covenant University influence you?
CU was hell. That place tested my physical and mental health. The rules were endless. From simple things like banning phones and jeans to using chapel attendance as a substitute for class attendance, they deliberately made life difficult when it didn’t need to be so. The hardest part was knowing all they were putting us through was unnecessary and not being able to do anything about it.
Going there, I realised the only person I could trust with my life choices is me. I shouldn’t have attended the school or studied the course I did. Parents and authority figures are great, but they can be wrong sometimes. You need to stand up for yourself when necessary; Nigerian elders should be checked once in a while.
I’m dead. Have you ever had to stand up to an older person?
I do that all the time — I did it with my school. I wrote and published essays about my experience, and they didn’t take it lightly. They ended up suspending me twice. I did the same with my parents. I sat them down to have an important talk about letting me live my life. It was scary, but necessary.
This question is for millenials: tell us how this conversation with your parents went.
They were hellbent on me becoming a chemical engineer, but I had been struggling with the course for five years and was over it. They didn’t listen. This same course had given me high blood pressure. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I had tremors in both of my hands. I finally sat them down and told them I was leaving for my sanity.
How did they react?
Mehn. I ended up running away and staying with a friend for a while until my mum came to pick me up for a meeting with my dad. They still maintained their stance, so I moved again. This time, I stayed in a hotel for about five weeks.
That time was hectic. I had other family members roasting me left, right and centre. Then I had to deal with a heartbreak and plan an exhibition around the same time as well. It was a tough time I won’t lie, but it was necessary for me and my family so we could eventually find a way to evolve our relationship.
We later got to the point where we all just calmed down, and my parents were like, “Okay, we don’t understand what you’re doing, but if this is what it has to be, then fine.” I think we just had to finally communicate effectively to move forward.
Whew! So you mentioned a heartbreak situation earlier, what was that about?
I can sense the drama.
Over the years, I’d always said I couldn’t afford love or relationships because of work, school and just being busy. But the truth is, I was scared of being vulnerable. Anyway, I made the mistake of falling in love with someone I was in a situationship with.
Very big oh no. There are some things I never want to hear again, especially lines like, “Let’s see where it goes”.
It didn’t end the way I wanted because I don’t think they were on the same page as me. I also didn’t see the situation as clearly as I should have because I was deep in love.
Aww. How did this heartbreak affect your outlook on love and relationships?
My eyes opened and I became anti-everything love. With everything I was going through, the heartbreak took the longest, and I’ll say it hurt the most. It felt like someone punched me. I could’ve sworn it would be both of us to the end. Funny thing is, Omah Lay’s Understand became my jam because that was my life. I didn’t know I could care that much. To get over it, I spent time with my friends and by myself. It was important to reevaluate my self-worth.
But now, I know it’s part of life. Sometimes, things don’t work out, but I can’t let that stop me. Waking up every day is a risk, yet we do it. Accepting heartbreak doesn’t mean I failed at love or a relationship. For the future of my romantic relationships, I’m letting life take the wheel.
Love that. In Nigeria, education is how people measure chance for success. Did you have doubts or fears about dropping out?
I weighed my options. The fear of living a miserable life doing a job I hated in a field I hated was bigger than any other fear. I know how easy it is to let the years pass because I had done that in university, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. To be fair, I had started to slowly establish myself as an artist and was making some money at the time. A part of me felt like If I didn’t take that step, I wouldn’t even have a future to begin with. I had to bet on myself and make it work.
Talking about things that worked out, your work, The Red Man, became this viral moment in 2020, how did that happen?
It’s crazy because I was just fucking around with this art thing and then one day I became an artist. The Red Man was one of those rare moments where I decided to work on something for myself, away from all the works that influenced me. I wasn’t trying to be like any of my art idols; it was something fun for me. I posted it online the next day, and the pain became this huge thing.
I wasn’t even looking at art as a career path. I had done smaller commissioned work and album covers, but I didn’t look at it as a potential primary source of income.
Mad. How did the love for The Red Man move from verbal appreciation to people wanting to buy copies?
It happened the same week. I was very blessed because most times people appreciate your work on Twitter and that’s it. But this time, I had people asking me for print copies. I fucked around, made some, and they sold out over and over. I then had to make my website and make everything a serious business.
Mad. This NFT thing you’re doing, tell us about it.
The NFT thing also happened at the end of 2020. I remember this white man DMed me on Instagram asking if I was interested in exploring NFTs, and I was a bit hesitant because I felt something shady was about to happen.
I was wrong. He worked with an NFT platform and talked to me about crypto and NFTs. As I said, this was 2020, so in my head, I was like, “Omo, I don’t have money for crypto”. But I went with it and ended up planning my first NFT drop for 2021.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I just went with the flow. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity placed in front of me. Ten minutes into the NFT drop, someone messaged me on Twitter saying, “Congrats for selling out”. My first thought was maybe he was referring to print copies of my art, but apparently, we had sold out our NFTs. Everything worked out.
Funds! I’m curious to know, what does it feel like to have accomplished so much at 21?
I’d be lying if I said it was fun. A lot has happened and it’s all been back to back. Imagine you wake up in 2020 and you have all these papers to sign and shipments to coordinate and you just turned 20. Then 2021 came with its headaches. I dropped out of university and had to organise three events. As a human being, it’s a lot to go through at once. People look at me and expect that after all of this, my life would be solid and so I find it difficult to admit that it’s stressful. It’s just… there’s always something.
That sounds so tough. I hope it gets better. How are your parents reacting to all of this?
This came out of the blues for me and I was the one it happened to, so you can imagine how confused they must be right now. In 2020 they saw me bringing all these paintings and then watched everything blow up. They both came for my exhibition, and I know it’s been interesting for them to watch in real-time.
What was the first thing you bought when you hammered?
Bro, I went to the supermarket and bought barbeque sauce and some groceries. LOL. In my house, my mum is the community manager, and we can’t just take or use anything anyhow, so for me, it was mad just getting to buy my own groceries. I look at my siblings like, “You guys have to use the family barbeque sauce? Eyah”.
I’ve always wondered if you’ve ever felt pressure to top or recreate The Red Man?
Do you know the deathless collection?
No. I don’t think so.
Exactly. LOL. I tried to get it back and trace my steps, but the more I tried, the more I failed. It’s like making art from a place of pride or trying to please everyone else; you just end up failing. I kept failing, and then one day I removed everyone from my mental workspace. I said fuck everyone! I needed to do something for myself and so I decided to paint a guy from a story I had read about: the African Samurai, Yasuke. When it dropped,it went viral again.
Step 1 to success: Fuck everyone. Got it
LOL. It felt good to know I wasn’t a one painting wonder, but after that, I started thinking: “Maybe these are the only two paintings that would blow.”
My life is a constant circle of good things happening and me wondering if it’d be the last time.
This question is for the fans: why do your paintings always look upset?
I honestly don’t know. Maybe I’m upset. LOL. But these are questions I’m going to have to ask my therapist in the future. I think people look interesting when they’re not smiling. I won’t say they’re upset; I’ll just say they’re in-between emotions. They could be happy or distraught, who knows? But now that you’ve pointed it out, I’ll have to look into it.
This question is for fellow creatives: the whole hobby becoming a work thing, how does it work for you?
I’m trying to get back to a place where I did this for fun, but the deeper you go into this business, the harder it gets. My mum is the best cook I know, and I remember asking why she didn’t consider opening a restaurant and she said, “When money and work gets involved, it complicates everything.” I didn’t get it when I was younger, but now that it’s happened to me, I understand what she was saying. Something I did for the love of it has become the thing that provides food on my table.I’m constantly thinking about how to brand ideas and profitably communicate them.
I feel you. Looking forward to anything this 2022?
I have a couple of work projects lined up, but the most important thing for me this year is to take a break. I do this thing where I say I’m taking a break, then somehow I get dragged back in. This time, I’m going to walk away from everything for a substantial amount of time. I have said and done enough, and it’s time to relax before I burnout.
I’m rooting for you.