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.
Today’s Man Like is Mayowa “Shutabug” Alabi, a visual artist, videographer, graphic designer and illustrator with the BBC. He talks about experiencing different social classes while growing up, an incident that made it difficult for him to ask for help and the inspiration for his art.
What was growing up like for you?
I like to say I had a bit of two worlds. My parents didn’t want me to be so spoiled that I would be dependent on them but also didn’t want me so close to the streets that I would become wayward. I would leave Ketu in the morning surrounded by poor students heading to public schools to Baptist Boys College in Obanikoro. I was an ajebutter in Ketu, and never quite fit in at school because I wasn’t rich like my mates. I couldn’t relate to their discussions about their vacation trips abroad or cartoons they had watched on satellite TV.
My parents tried to teach me perspective. They would sometimes send me to my rich uncle’s house for the holiday so I didn’t feel too out of place with more privileged people. I went to fancy restaurants and had lunch on cruise ships.
I also spent time with my cousins in Bariga where I got close and personal to the “street life.” I loved it for how relaxing and dangerous it was. I got the freedom to buy street food and go to game centres.
Combining the experiences taught me how to navigate Lagos, regardless of which side of the divide I interact with. I guess I found a way to balance both.
What were the finances in your home like?
In the words of M.I, we didn’t grow up poor but we didn’t grow up rich. I was an only child so I didn’t lack basic needs. I guess it was easy for them to raise me. There were days when getting by was a struggle but my parents made sure I didn’t lack basic needs.
How was your relationship with your parents?
Growing up, I was closer to my dad than my mum because I felt like she didn’t understand me— my dad just seemed more in tune with me than my mom. As we grew older, we began to find common ground on issues.
There was an incident that drove a wedge between my parents and me for a long time.
Growing up, I didn’t demand much. But in my final year in secondary school, I really wanted an Xbox. Things were going well for my family, so I told my parents that if I passed my WAEC exams really well, they would buy me an Xbox. They agreed.
Because WAEC results don’t get released until later in the year, my school used a mock WAEC exam to determine awardees at the speech and prize-giving day. Unfortunately, I hadn’t paid much attention to the mock examination because I was working super hard on my exams on WAEC. My parents were disappointed that I didn’t win any prize, and they felt I was smart enough to get at least one award, even if it was in Yoruba. They said they weren’t buying me the Xbox like they promised. I was gutted. It didn’t matter that later on in the year when the WAEC result came out and I did really well — they didn’t keep to our agreement. It was at the point I determined that I would never rely on them for anything I wanted. I had to find a way to make money.
Omo. What did you do?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. When I got out of secondary school, I didn’t enter the university immediately because I wanted to study law but I was offered English education instead. During that year, I started learning graphic design.
I still didn’t get into law the following year. This time, I was offered political science, and I took it.
It was a depressing period for me. But I think if I wasn’t studying political science, I wouldn’t have been able to find my dream career as an artist. I’d probably be somewhere saying “My lord” to a judge in a stuffy wig and gown if I had gotten law like I wanted.
I was getting money from designing flyers in Unilag for 2k-5k. In my third year, I got a job with Co-Creation Hub (CCHUB), where I worked for six years.
What did your parents think?
They didn’t know until my final year. I was getting a salary and an allowance. I was balling every month, ordering stuff from ASOS. During the holidays, I would ask to go back to the hostel. I said I wanted to go and study for the new semester, but the truth was I just wanted to be able to go to work. They found out about it in my final year, and I think they were relieved because they didn’t want me to be job hunting after school
Six years after joining CCHUB, I left and became a freelance artist.
Where do you get inspiration for your art from?
Frankly, I copy. It comes from looking at other people’s work and thinking, “If this artist can do this, I should give it a shot.” This doesn’t mean that I rip off the artist. I just want to see what the process would feel like. At the end of it, a distinct style comes out. I do that to make sure I never run out of ideas.
The inspiration for my art comes from Lagos. I used to use public transport a lot — danfos and BRTs. And every so often, I’d happen on an interesting scenario like a fight after two cars had brushed each other. My art gives me an opportunity to explore things I feel strongly about.
Independence. I’m an only child, so I’ve been on my own right from the jump. I’m used to doing things on my own.
The Xbox incident with my parents also made it difficult for me to ask for help, from them or anyone else. People think I’m standoffish or snobbish because I like to do things on my own. I’m learning to manage to ask and receive help when I need it.
I hope you do. What are your plans for the future?
In the short term, I’m trying to stack up enough cash so I can focus on my long-term plan, establishing art schools in Nigeria. A lot of focus is placed on technical subjects like medicine and engineering with little attention paid to the arts. There’s a lot of artistict talent in Nigeria that just needs to be nurtured.
That’s interesting. When you’re trying to relax from work, what do you do?
On some days, I’m either sleeping, watching something on Netflix or playing video games. On others, I’m just talking to a friend.
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