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Azuka Muoh’s art explores pertinent issues with symbolism and language

azuka muoh

Azuka Muoh was recently listed as one of the top 10 up and coming Black artists to look out for in 2022. A 21-year-old filmmaker and contemporary artist from Lagos, she is making a mark in the creative industry. She ventured into contemporary art in 2020 and had her film debut a little while later. As a filmmaker, she directed a commercial for Eyowo in 2021. Her short film, Dr Akpofure, which explores the trauma of abuse and the debilitating tradition of victim-blaming, was released the same year.

Azuka has always been creative. Somewhat influenced by her mom, an artist, she started with hyperrealistic pencil-drawing at 13, long before hyperrealism became mainstream in Nigeria. In 2017, she became a graphic designer and worked in a couple of graphic design positions. By the beginning of 2020, just as the COVID-19 was picking up momentum, she started exploring various software that enabled her to start making the kind of contemporary art she’s now making.

We spoke over Zoom on a Friday evening in February. She came into the call with a bold and assertive countenance, characteristic of her work. It’s hard to look away from Azuka’s art, which usually features vibrant colours and vivid symbolism. I found out about her work in 2021 when a friend shared her Instagram page with me. I wondered what her username, arrestingyellow, meant. I assumed it had something to do with the fact that many of her works around the time had yellow in them. I was not sure, so I asked her at the beginning of our conversation. “Arresting Yellow is just a random name,” she started telling me before her German shepherd, Dawn, came to say hi, and Azuka briefly paused to pat her face. “At first, I did not want my real name out there, so I came up with random names for my socials, and my friends chose arrestingyellow from the many options I came up with.” I also asked about her name, Azuka Muoh. “Azuka is a short form of Azukaego, a metaphor for strength, and Muoh means spirit.”

Azuka gained admission to the University of Benin but left shortly after. “I left because it wasn’t what I wanted,” she said, with a desirable conviction in her voice. She’s one of the few people I’ve met personally who boldly dropped out of university with the resolve to maximize their capacity for a different career of choice. She currently has a day job as a motion designer. Although she started back into the creative industry as a graphic designer, she honed more creative skills due to compulsory screen time that helped her discover appropriate software and resources. “I would still be drawing and painting, but being digital made me explore different software that enabled me to transition into motion design, contemporary art, and film.”

You will notice a consistent use of the Igbo language in Azuka’s work. Some of her drawings have Igbo titles, and Dr Akpofure’s narration was entirely in Igbo. The use of language in her work seemed strategic. It seemed like a nice place to start a longer conversation about her style and her experience as a creative. The remaining part of my conversation with Azuka is presented below and has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

TOPE AKINTAYO: What is the significance of the Igbo language in your work?

AZUKA MUOH: It’s as simple as having a female identity. I’m Igbo. I grew up with Igbo parents who spoke Igbo to me. Although we lived in Lagos, I grew up travelling back to my native town every year. So, using Igbo in my work is like an English person naming his work in English. I acknowledge that most people of my generation are not very in touch with their language and culture. However, I use Igbo because it portrays and explains the work better. Also, in the places where I used Igbo, it was because English didn’t hold enough spiritual value to support the context in which I needed it. In the end, it all boils down to my language explaining my work better and capturing the essence of the work in the cases where I used it. There are some things you say in Igbo, and by the time you try to translate them, they lose some of their meaning. The same thing with most languages; that’s why when I watch movies, I don’t trust subtitles. Yeah, because it loses meaning once you translate it.

What is the significance of the tyre rims in your works?

Growing up, we used to travel to Imo State, where I am from, every year and I noticed that there’s something about the Igbo culture and masculinity. The culture promotes patriarchy and toxic masculinity a lot. If you grew up in Nigeria, you must have watched these old Nollywood movies where this guy from the village gets up and says, “I want to go to the city and make money,” and then he goes to the city and works. And then the proof of his manhood is in going back home with the car, a house, wearing a suit, and drinking beer. These very subtle attributes of masculinity seem to make you a man. So I chose tyres to represent masculinity because it is a characteristic feature of the car, one of the attributes that make you a man. I have a few pieces representing masculinity with beer bottles, but I mostly use tyres.

Azuka Muoh: Mmechi Onu

What challenges do you face as a creative person, and how do you navigate these challenges?

I don’t know about other creatives, but executing can be hard. Executing whatever you’re thinking about can be hard, especially in filmmaking. I’ve not had many problems executing when it comes to fine arts, that is, doing the work itself. For fine art, once I conceive the idea and it looks good in my head, I go ahead and create it, and I could be done in an hour or a week. Filmmaking is not that easy, although it looks easy from the outside. Coming up with great ideas could be hard for some people. But for someone like me, I always have meaningful ideas, but executing them is not always easy. You don’t always meet people that share your vision and are as passionate and committed to it as you are. Everybody has a vision of their own, and not everybody is willing to contribute to someone else’s vision. My first short film could have been shot in a day, but it took me six months because it was hard to get everything together. So, execution is a challenge that I face.

Breaking out, especially for indie filmmakers, can be tough. Social media has helped a lot, but there’s still a barrier of exposure for the average Nigerian creatives and filmmakers. It can be hard to get your work out there and be seen by the right people. You might have your work seen, but it does not make any difference if the right people or audience do not see it.

I have learned to work at my own pace and do meaningful work. I prioritize meaningful work much more than plenty of work. There’s no point in making ten short films that are not meaningful in a year. I keep saying “meaningful work” because it is very important. There’s a lot of noise out there. Everybody is making stuff and creating, but you have to make something meaningful to stand out. Meaningful, collaborative work. You can make good stuff on your own, but there’s nothing like making good stuff with people as good as or even better than you.

How do you create a meaningful network, collaborate, and explore the strengths of others to create meaningful work? Also, you mentioned getting your work seen by the right people. Have you been able to break the code of finding the right people?

In terms of collaboration, I’ve been able to work with other people in a corporate space, working as a motion designer. But for self-expression, as an artist, I would say that I’m still working on that. I’m very heavily introverted. I do not step out of my house unless it is necessary. So I’m not going to sit here and answer all of your questions like I have all the answers because I don’t. One of my goals this year is to work with other good people, and that’s still a work in progress. So far, I have done all of my work by myself, but I know the importance of working with other people because, no matter what you do, an artist is part of an ecosystem, and you don’t exist on your own. 

Again, I won’t say that all the right people have seen my work. I’m doing my part to achieve that by showing up every day. I’m not someone that likes social media. I didn’t have a social media presence until recently, and sometimes I still want to delete everything and run away. I don’t particularly appreciate having my picture out there. Still, I understand that it’s important to put myself and my wants away at this stage. It’s common with many music artists who try to be mysterious online. You can’t afford to be mysterious and not let anyone see your face and expect your work to speak for you. That’s the sort of thing you do when you’re Kanye West, Jay Z, or Beyonce. It’s not really for people like us at this stage right now, but I’m hoping to reach a stage where I can stay off social media for a year. For now, I will try to show up, do my work, and share my work till it gets all the necessary recognition.

You have to show up and push out your work, and while doing that, you’ll bless it and say, “You’ll go to the right people and attract the right audience for me.” There is no formula, but if you stay consistently present, at some point, things will lead to other things, which would make you get seen by the right people and in the right places.

Azuka Muoh: Masculinity and the minority

What do you have to say about the role of creatives in amplifying the voice of Black people?

I do not have personal experience of the effects of Black marginalization, but in my little sphere, I know what it’s like to be marginalized. Artists are influencers of the thought processes of society. We are the real influencers. There are Instagram influencers, but we are societal influencers. Imagine if all of the artists in the world came together and said one thing. Can you imagine the impact that will have? We have the power to say things and have people believe and obey. I did not realize the power of artists until I read “There Was a Country” by Chinua Achebe. He said, “How can an artist stay independent of society?” You live in a society and are part of that society, so you cannot isolate yourself. You have to amplify societal issues by speaking about whatever is happening. As much as our creative ability is a gift we were given, it is also a responsibility. It’s a microphone. And what better way to use it than to keep talking through your medium?

Virginia Wolfe famously said that for most of history, Anonymous was a woman. On a larger scale, for most of history, Anonymous has been Black people. If we keep influencing, speaking, and doing our part to let people know that we exist, we’ll be able to make a mark and show that the world won’t ignore us. And that’s, of course, apart from personal experiences of these issues. It’s important to step out of your own experiences to speak about what is happening in the world. However, you may feel like an imposter sometimes. I was recently thinking about doing a project on the Niger Delta. I’m not a Niger Delta girl, and I’m not an indigene. I wasn’t born there, nor did I grow up there. My father grew up during the civil war, and he always told me stories about it. I can tell that story based on what I have heard and read, but I wasn’t born then and did not live through the horrors, so it’s very easy for me to feel like an imposter. Even if you do not have personal experience, speaking about these issues is still important. Whether you are actively impacted by something or not, simply trying to speak about it helps in the long run.

Azuka Muoh: Untitled

What are some of the most important financial lessons you’ve learned as a creative?

Get a job. Every personal expression is not going to pay you immediately. The sooner you start, the better. We have three different expressions as human beings–artistic expression, hobby, and business. Before making art your business, you should have another business to feed you. And the problem with artists is that we are not usually business people. It is just about creating and presenting, especially when it comes to filmmaking. You want to make something so artistic, and you spend your time creating it, but you forget that you’re trying to sell it as well. I’ve had that problem too, but as I grew older, I began to take this approach where before I start making an artwork, I already think of the market value, who I want to sell it to, and who will collect it. You may call it cheating, and you may say that’s me being unauthentic, but I will say that’s me thinking of my work outside of myself. So, as I’m doing the work, I think about its value, both monetarily and in terms of its impact on someone else. 

Being more experienced now, what advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

I’ll tell her not to be scared because I was a very scared kid. I was so scared of everything. I was so scared and uncertain. I’ll also tell her not to worry. I worried so much about what people thought of me. Those were my struggles growing up, preventing me from doing many things. So, that’s about it. I’ll tell her not to worry and that everything will be alright.

When you are faced with fear, how do you deal with it?

I have this mantra. We’re all going to die. Also, every single person you’re looking at is going to go home and take a shit just like you. They will take off their pants, sit on the toilet, and take a shit, just like you. So nobody’s special. I’m not special. They’re not special either. And half the time, they don’t even know half as much as you do once you get to talk to them. It’s very easy for people to look intimidating until you get closer.

What’s the worst that could happen? We’re all not special, and every one of us is selfish. To some extent, we’re all just looking out for ourselves. Everybody wants to grow, make money, see their names on billboards, and generally be successful. So we all have that tendency toward selfishness. I’ve seen humans at their worst. I have seen them at their primal, true nature, and I have seen that we’re all just animals pretending to be sophisticated. However, we use a lot of things to divide ourselves. The first black man to do this, the first black woman to go to space, the first Igbo guy to do this. Just remove all of these things, and we are all the same. We’re all flesh and blood, and there’s nothing special about us. 

This knowledge helps me a lot to deal with fear. Of course, it doesn’t work all the time, and I still get panic attacks sometimes, but it’s what I used to reassure myself and stay present.

From books to films, what are some of your favourite things?

For books, I’m a fan of African literature. There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe. The Joys of Motherhood by Bucci Emecheta. Efuru by Flora Nwapa. These are not self-help or motivational books. I read and draw artistic expressions from them, and they help me gain better clarity when it comes to storytelling and film. For films, I watch true crime a lot. I like to watch documentaries about crimes. That makes me sound crazy, but I like it.

I have a YouTube community where I teach the basics of filmmaking to Nigerians. It’s called “Keyframe Rabbits.” Then there is Flashroom Academy on Youtube; it’s for creatives who want to learn the basics of making money and turn their ideas into businesses. Many creatives struggle with that. So if you’re creative and you want to make money from your stuff, check out Flashroom Academy.

Azuka Muoh: Ah Boy

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