Asukwo EB: The Wickedly Gifted…

Note: The situation is not real…but the interview is…

I sit and watch Mike go crazy with his pencil, working away at his work table while the kids and his lady made noise at the kitchen. Totally lost in his newest creation of the comical saga we call politics in Nigeria. I finally get to interview this bundle of artistic energy. Finally!! After a whole year…

“Ehem…”, I coughed, trying to get his attention. Why do I go through this especially with artists. Hmmm, maybe I should consider myself a muse that once they see me, their creative juices start flowing.

“Hello…Mike…Earth to Mike…”

“Shhhhhh. You don’t disturb artists like me when we are in touch with the force,” he said, with a mischievous smile on his face.

“Mike, come on. You know it’s just a few questions I have and all I need are quick answers…”

“ohhh, Alright”, he said, dropping his tool and finally giving me his attention. Finally!!! “But no plenty grammar oh. I will just give you answers you need so that you leave me alone…”

YAAAAY! So, I start:

Please give us a brief history about yourself?

My name is Etim Bassey Asukwo, later christened Michael, born 27th May, 1965 in a little church in Idua Assang, Oron in Akwa Ibom state. It was South Eastern State then. I rode on my sister’s back on my first day to school. I wore sandals. I wish I didn’t, maybe I would have become ‘something’.  I later moved to Army Children School, in 1976, I have always had a thing for anything military back then. In 1977, I passed the Common Entrance and was placed in St Vincent’s College ( Secondary School, Oti-Oron, Oron).  It was a good school with a well-equipped laboratory and library. Good sports facilities, band etc. But nothing about art, no art studio, no art teacher at any level.  So I never had any formal art education at that level. I joined the press club, in my 3rd year. I was the cartoonist and the cartoons were a thorn in the flesh of the school authorities.

“Yeah”, I interrupted. “ I can imagine what they went through with you around…”

“Oh, it was bad,” he continued. “Inspectors from the ministry of Education, on one of their visits, took the Press Notice Board because the cartoon of the day depicted the Principal as a dog. (Some days earlier the principal had sank his teeth in my shoulders while admonishing me for an act of indiscipline).

He laughed at the shock on my face. “It must have been scary…” I added.

Oh yeah. I was afraid and hid in the bush for most part of the day. But I heard the Inspectors were happy about the cartoon, unknown to me, even the principal too later confessed to me he was collecting all the cartoons from the press board. I was emboldened; the cartoons became a mirror of the school environment.  A boy was almost expelled because he dared temper with a cartoon that showed him collecting double ration from the dining hall.

He shifted in his chair with a huge grin on his face as he sat in the memories of being an integral part of school…

My biggest disappointment was that school refused to let me offer art in the West African School Certificate examination. The principal argued that he was not going to all that trouble just for a sole candidate, and queried how I hoped to pass a subject I never studied in the first place. In anger, I refused to sit for commerce, the subject he used to replace art for me. I left St Vincent in 1982.

Wow, this guy is old…

I worked briefly with the Ministry of Internal Affairs as an Accounts Clerk in 1984 after my attempt to join the army failed.

What didn’t this guy try?!

I was actually recruited and after 3 days of rigorous screening, I couldn’t find my credentials. I left the Akim Barracks camp dejected. A week after, someone delivered the credentials to our paramount ruler’s palace. That remains an unsolved mystery.
I went on to study Business Administration at the Calabar polytechnic (now Cross River State University of Technology, CRUTECH).  Spent 3 semesters and opted out. Then it took a lot of intelligence to be a drop-out. While at the polytechnic  I sat for fine art and had A1. It was time to move on.

Four years after (1990) I entered Yaba College of Technology to study fine art. I majored in sculpture, graduated in 1996  with Upper Credit and a string of awards and went on to become Asukwo,EB.

Wow! For a guy who didn’t want me to ask a lot, he does give a lot. Well, Since he is in a roll, i will let him go on, all the better for me …hehehe.

So, after attending 3 semesters in Business administration, you finally moved to fine arts. Why did you even go for the Business course in the first place?

At the time I left St Vincent, I was one subject down.  I actually wanted to study Mass Communication.  I had a pass in mathematics, I never will understand why the school offered me Business Administration instead. Maybe it was providence at work. If I had studied mass comm, I never would have hated it enough to dump it. So fate gave me a course that I could easily abandon. I was a good Business Administration student though but I spent more time with the Architecture and Mass Communications students. And most of my notes were illustrated. Again I joined the Press Club, writing a weekly column titled Laughter for Dinner and drawing cartoons.

Hmm, so far so good. But let’s see how personal he is willing to get…

Did your parents have anything to do with your first choice of study?

In a way yes, my mother was hoping it would change my dress sense. While working at Internal Affairs, my boss was always complaining about my T-shirt and jeans, that the mode was totally out of place in an Account office. He advised my mum one day when she visited me in the office to do something about my dress code. And when the Business Administration offer came, she was happy. For her, it was a time to see me in shirt sleeves and tie.

Moms. If they could rule the world…well, they do…in a funny way…Still talking about how the old still have a leash on their young, I move on…

What do you think the about the issue where decisions are made by parents on study choices of their kids?
I think in most cases, it deprives the children of the chance to realise their true potentials, their intrinsic and latent talents. With out doubt, children actually need guidance while making the choice, but the choice should not be forced on them. It is important they understand what a given career entails, the opportunities, the potentials.  The child’s academic performance should be considered and his inclinations identified in order to proffer the right options. But the final decision should be that of the child.

Spoken like a true free spirit…ok, his fingers are moving towards the dreaded pencil again. I have to keep his attention on me…

Do you think it’s still the same situation now?

Nothing has changed much. Most parents still desire their children to realise their (the parent) dreams for them. Some want them to tow their path, step into their professional shoes, inherit their talents , take over the family business and all that. Not considering that the child too is a unique being just like them, imbued with their own personality, talents and inherent traits.

“He hasn’t even offered you water to drink, has he?” Mike’s wife said, as she walked with a plate full of fried peppered meat and a bottle of coke. Of course, I am not one to turn down such a wonderful feast in front me. Grinning from ear to ear, I dive in, after saying my thanks, of course. With a mouth full of meat, I continue:

Not only are you a sculptor but also a cartoonist. From blogs and newspapers to facebook, your cartoons have put smiles on people’s faces but at the same time, made people see the political scenario being played clearly. Why politics?

I am, first of all, a sculptor; every other thing is just being added unto me.  I think better with clay, I like the 3D format of sculpture, the tactile nature. I love the challenge of handling the unpredictability of materials. As a person, I think in 3 dimensions.  Sculpture helps me do other things well. On a good day, I am a carpenter, bricklayer, fashion designer, welder, painter, panel beater, masseur, tinker, blacksmith, carver, weaver, potter, shoemaker, etc.  But in cartoon, I found a way to communicate on a different level. It is the part of me that yearns for a better society, for justice and good governance. I seek an egalitarian society. And I believe, there is always the need to let some people, especially people in power, know how their decisions affect those they govern. So it has to be politics. Political decisions and policies affect every other aspect of our lives.

 Are you afraid of the impact you have on readers? I mean, based on conflicts that came about due to cartoons that were featured in magazines and newspapers in past years, the issues you depict, the meaning between the lines

No, I am not. I work hoping to get a reaction. My cartoons are my own way of clamouring for change. I try to shout loud enough for someone to do something about the source of my annoyance, fear, dissatisfaction, discomfort, pain etc. It is like saying; look, this is what you are doing wrong, this is what we think about what you are doing, this is how your action or inaction might affect or is affecting us. People may be aggrieved by my choice of the subject matter, imagery or editorial deduction. But definitely cartoon is not meant to make every one happy. Sometimes the anger may come from misreading a cartoon. Talking about ‘reading between the lines’ a fan once called me to complain about using the expression ‘holy mother’ in one of my cartoons. He was not interested at all in the bigger picture, the problem the cartoon was commenting on; he was concerned rather with the use of an expression. I take things like that in my stride. I fear for the danger people like that pose to the society.

Should your cartoons be taken very seriously or it’s all just fun and games and made to lighten the day of bad news with a hint of sarcasm?

If you ignore cartoons and all forms of satire, you are doing so at your own peril. Like music, it is a universal language. A language of harmony, and of protest.  It is a bitter pill laced with honey. It is like you said, to lighten the mood brought on by the bad news of the day.

He sits back and finally lets himself relax in front of me. Listening to the kids play with their mother, he has a content look on his face.  He can give his family all they need with his accomplishment so far. But then, I ask:

How would you say cartoonists fare in a society like ours?

You can hardly survive on cartooning alone; most cartoonists do other things on the side. Some of my cartoonists friends are painters, graphic artists and Class room teachers.

What can be done to make things better than they are right now to not just cartoonists but artists in general?

It is not the best of times for artists. Art has become something of an afterthought, people seek the artist after they had already done what the artist should have done for them in the first place. People hardly advice their children to go study art, even when it is obvious that the child is naturally inclined towards that direction.  But the artist is self-reliant. It would have been tough, if not near impossible, for me in school if I was not studying art. There were always little jobs coming in for us students to keep body and soul together. Sometimes, if it got too hard, you take your assignment to collectors.
But what can be done, I think more attention be given to the art curriculum with a view to rekindling the urge for individual expression. Lately, the art curriculum has been overtaken by all kinds of borrowed courses. The art student has been made to begin to think of himself as less of an artist. Cartooning is not thought in school, I don’t know a school in Nigeria where it is offered, despite the fact that most people are living on it.
Art could be made functional; you need an artist just like you need an architect. People tend to seek free art consultation. A lot of artists are into interior décor, fashion, set designing, construction, events management.

Ok, he has picked up his pencil again, a signal telling me to get it done. Quickly.

You majored in sculpture and you are a cartoonist but which is it that you would call yourself?

I just call myself an artist, it is safer that way. I remember I once designed a business card and wrote: Mike Asukwo-painter, sculptor, designer. My friends argued that if I had to write all that I did, I would need a poster rather than a business card. But, I really would easily prefer being called a sculptor. It has to do the way I feel when I am in the sculpture studio. I feel I belong there.  Like we always say, you are never an artist until you are a sculptor. The earth itself is God’s sculpture garden.

He gets up and stretches and gives this look that tells me to hop on it. Ok, ok, I get the message. With a twinkle in his eye, he picks up his pencil and I actually watch him fall into the zone.  I guess the interview is over…for now. As I thank the lady of the house once again for the wonderful peppered meat and swiftly pack up the rest for the long journey home, I look at the messy table that Mike was bent over, already taken over by the creation of the day. I have finally fulfilled my promise to myself. The chance to sit with a mind that refuses to have an edge, the opportunity to just sit with this dynamite pack full of ideas. I pity the next victim that finds his or her way to his drawing. I just know its not me…and I am cool with that.

The end…

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