From keystrokes to brush strokes — how NFTs “freed" Anthony Azekwoh

Ola Kalejaye
August 28, 2022
A self-portrait of Anthony Azekwoh, the Nigerian artist and writer.

Anthony Azekwoh's first work as a creator was with words. But the writer never left canvas behind after being pushed into art by a broken laptop. He speaks to Ola Kalejaye about learning new skills for a new medium, presenting his work as his brand, and how the art community in Nigeria has been aided by NFTs.

For all the successes and recognition that Anthony Azekwoh’s art has received so far in his career, his artistic journey had humble beginnings, to say the least. In his early teens, he first began exploring his creativity through writing. It was only around the age of 16 when his laptop broke, that he first delved into practising art. 

“I just started picking up leftover pens and that's how the art thing came about.” Six years later, the artist’s internet-powered artistic endeavors are going strong. Something that he credits to persistence, the pursuit of artistic integrity, and, of course, knowing how to use the internet.

Naturally, there was a learning curve when Azekwoh first started drawing and painting. He notes how difficult it can be for a self-taught artist to learn new skills without guidance. ”When you're self-taught, there's nobody to put you through things.”

YouTube offered one way for Anthony to pick up different skills. As did learning how best to reach out to other artists on social media. So much so that he guesses he must have discovered just about every Nigerian artist putting out work online at some point. 

Then, of course, there was a more abstract shift. Having defined himself as a writer for so long, there was a mental barrier to creating a different kind of art. “I think one of the challenges was definitely how I saw myself. I had to break out of that view of, ‘oh, you can only be one thing.’”

Yasuke 彌助, by Anthony Azekwoh.

The mediums that artists work in so often form significant parts of their identities, let alone how they direct their careers. What’s more, given how distribution pathways for artists have traditionally worked, artists have often suffered for creating work that doesn’t fit into a neat and “marketable” box.

For Anthony, however, those obstacles are just part of the challenge of exploring new artistic skills: a process he ultimately regards as a “very rewarding kind of stress”. As proof, the artist has recently taken to 3D sculpting, releasing the first NFT in his digital sculpture series back in June. Whilst his first artistic pivot years back was driven by circumstance, this time around, the artist is looking at a new way of emotional expression. “The sculptures are really just this crazy exploration process of, how do I let people feel what it is that's in my head?”

More notably, while there are certain expressions that may lend themselves better to one medium over another, for Anthony, the fundamentals behind the art do not change. “Storytelling is storytelling at the end of the day.”

What is important and constant across all mediums is a commitment to artistic integrity, whatever that may look like. For Anthony this means that his pieces reflect the grit and perseverance that he feels have brought him to this point. “Being able to create the truth of who you are is very important to me. As much as possible, I'm trying to convey those emotions in my work. I'm trying to say, ‘this thing you’re doing is hard but you yourself, you’re harder’. So in a lot of my work, the figures are very stoic.”

Tinúkẹ́, which means 'cherished from the womb' in Yoruba, by Anthony Azekwoh. "On your way to the party, don't forget your purse, your extra shoes, your smile, your heart."

In so many ways, Anthony is the archetypal NFT convert. Before the phenomenon, his work came from back-to-back commissions. The money wasn’t great and neither was the work. Luckily for him, the young artist was not long into his career when the NFT revolution came calling.

He first heard about crypto art back in December 2020. After the mandatory period of confusion and doubt, Anthony wrapped his head around it and decided to give it a shot. After selling out his first collection, there was no looking back.

“It was very important for my own career because it showed me that all my work is worth a lot more than I’ve been given. NFTs freed me and gave me the options to do these different things.”

When it comes to assessing why he has been able to find success in NFTs relatively early, Anthony credits early attention to how he presents his work online. The artist’s well-honed sense for the internet only became a more useful tool when NFTs finally came around. “I was already international before I entered NFTs. So there was that boost which made the transition easier. And that was because I view my art and myself as a brand, as opposed to me just posting stuff on the internet.”

Self-portrait: the death of me, by Anthony Azekwoh. "For I have grown, and so I have died. And now, I can truly live."

Anthony reflects that there was not much of an online community of Nigerian artists when he was starting out. Certainly not in the early days of NFTs.

“There definitely wasn't a community because at the time, other artists were also going through stuff, going through challenges. So what it felt like to me was just, they don't want to see a young guy grow. But what was happening was, these were adults in this whole new field, and they were navigating it too.”

Of course, in a country like Nigeria, with general instability and slowing growth across all industries, the universal challenges of pursuing an artistic career are greatly exacerbated. “To be honest, apart from a few outliers, it hasn't really happened yet. It’s just a lot harder because there are a lot of things that you have to jump past when you're coming from Nigeria.”

“NFTs freed me and gave me the options to do these different things.”

— Anthony Azekwoh

Indeed, just the process of connecting to the internet to mint artwork has more barriers in a country with an infamously unreliable power grid. When you factor in the insecurity, corruption, and economic stresses that also abound, it is easy to see why it could take more time for Nigerian artists to flourish than some of their global counterparts.

Mama Ona, by Anthony Azekwoh. "She just sat there, and smoked from her pipe, unable to speak to the pain that was buried in her soul."

Nevertheless, there is a visible increase in the presence of Nigerian artists on Twitter, in the media, and, more importantly, on NFT marketplaces. Anthony says that, ultimately, the strong global culture of mutual support between artists has changed the Nigerian art community for the better. 

“Things have changed a lot with NFTs, just the general countenance of everybody — it’s a lot more welcoming. It’s great to see that there are younger artists who can speak to some of these older guys and have that audience.”

For his own part, Anthony is not just talking the talk. He’s been active in supporting and promoting other Nigerian artists, and gladly shares the lessons that he has learned at this early stage.

“Make your work as distinct and as true as possible, and then it’s about making the connections necessary to make things happen. When you have the art and the audience, you're clear.”

“When you’re self-taught, there's nobody to put you through things.”

— Anthony Azekwoh

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Ola Kalejaye
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Ola is a US–based writer and digital nomad. He loves thinking, learning, and writing about all things web3, particularly its impact on major creative industries like film and art.

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