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An Interview with Owo Anietie

An Interview with Owo Anietie

Owo Anietie Agbowo

Owo is a Nigerian 3D afrofuturism artist. His career in art began in 2009 as a traditional artist doing portrait paintings and drawings as commissions. He transitioned to motion design, animation and digital illustration in 2012 with a desire to reach a wider audience, as an African artist, through his work which provided opportunities to work with Nigerian and American producers, artists and designers.

Sheyi Owolabi: You explore a lot of Benin culture in your work, are you from Benin? 

Owo Anietie: No. I’m not from Benin, I’m from Akwa-Ibom. I explore all art forms, honestly. I have a natural inclination to Benin arts because of how significant it was, in terms of shaping Nigeria’s art history. So yeah, I’ve gotten that a lot.

Sheyi Owolabi: So, who is Owo? 

Owo Anietie: My name is Owo Anietie. I’m a 3D artist. I usually go by Owo. I’m from Nigeria, mostly doing afro-futuristic work. My work is heavily inspired by African culture, African religion, politics, lost civilization, and African mythology. I originally started as an illustrator doing traditional art pieces, doing sculptures, doing drawings, portraits, and all of that. But I always had this feeling that my art was meant for a wider audience. So I had to delve into digital art as a means of reaching a wider audience, because what does every artist need, what does every musician and every writer need? An audience. You know, to show their work. So that’s one of the reasons why I moved into the digital space. 

Currently, I make art every day and I’ve been doing that for the past hundred and sixty-five days or it might be more than that, maybe by the time this interview is out. I plan on doing that for the next 50 years, putting out art every day for the next 50 years. So, that is Owo in a nutshell, 

Sheyi Owolabi: That is quite ambitious, and I admire that. One of the things that caught my eye about your work is the consistency. You share new work every day and they are always very fascinating and compelling. And there’s something rich about them. Every work is very introspective, so to speak. I love the way every piece celebrates or reimagines Nigerian cultural interactions. Every work is speaking to whatever is happening at the moment, 

Owo Anietie: For me, in terms of my works celebrating African culture, it’s very important that I tell my own story and my people’s story. Because these are things that people usually shy away from talking about. The way I see African priests, I see them as the first Afro futurists, because Afrofuturism is us imagining a future where our people will be free. And the priests were the ones who used to see the future for us back then. So it’s fascinating to me. Me putting out art every day is a way of documenting what’s going on in my head. It’s sort of like keeping a journal but for the entire internet to see. That’s why most of the work shows what’s happening because that is just my experience. 

Sheyi Owolabi: You mentioned that you started as an illustrator and, also, you were doing traditional art, you were into the traditional art form. I would like to know what your journey has been like from the beginning; as an illustrator and traditional artist to now doing 3D art every day for the next 50 years. 

Owo Anietie: Yeah. It’s been a very fascinating journey, you know? I still remember as a little boy, I used to draw money and sell it to my friends. Those were the days, man. I used to draw money and my friends would buy them, try to buy stuff from the Aboki and all of that. So, as a little boy, I’ve always been asking questions where maybe not a lot of people are asking questions because I’ve always been fascinated by African culture and history. I think to a large extent I used to do more landscape paintings back then, mostly detailing African architecture. The introduction of the War Hero piece is from a piece I did in 2012. So, if you put them side by side you will see the similarities.

So, it would show that or even before NFTs or whatever I’ve always wanted to tell these stories. I think to a large extent, the only meaning of art that’s ever made sense to me when I was in school is art in self-expression, you know because I feel like, you can only tell someone else’s story to a certain extent. When I first came into space, you see a lot of people were doing work that was heavy with astronauts, spaceships (laughs). I don’t care about what a spaceship is. I’ve never seen one in my life. I’ve never seen an astronaut before. 

 The only thing I know, African stories, African folktales mythology, and all of that. It’s just my own experience. that I can, you know, form from doing traditional arts. I’ve always had this inclination to reach a wider audience. I felt like my art was meant for more and to reach more people, maybe more people would appreciate the story if they got to know about it. So yeah, that’s one of the driving forces that’s moved me into the digital space. And to be very honest, when I, when I made that move, most of the artists that I knew back then were looking at me crazy, like why is this guy always dreaming or wanting to be more, but to them, maybe their path is different because it would be weird if we all had the same path, we all have the different path as human beings. 

For me, it has always been growing in terms of where the technology is going. So, I’m always curious to know the new technology on the block, learning all of that. 

So, between then and now it’s been a mismatch of trying to keep up with technology, which is a very risky thing to do in this age and time. But what I’ve always held dear to my heart is the fundamentals. You can never go wrong with it. 

In terms of what are the guiding lights of whatever you are doing? Whatever space you are, be it a musician or whatever, the fundamentals, you can never go wrong with it. So, between then and now, it’s always been keeping up with the fundamentals, learning composition, color theory, camera lens though I can’t even take a picture to save my life (laughs). 

Basically, keeping up with all, all these nuances. Because as a 3D artist, you’re juggling a lot. So, you are like a crew of what a hundred people come together to do, you do it as a one-man band. It means you have to learn all these different disciplines because all these people, you know, it took them years to master their craft. So, it’s always been a mix of keeping up with the fundamentals, learning, staying humble, and all of that. 

Sheyi Owolabi: What was it that made you decide to create art every day for the next 50 years? 

Owo Anietie: When I say this, I usually sound like a madman. Some people look at it and say he’s just “capping” you know. They’ll say maybe after one year, he’ll be tired. I’ve done a hundred days before when I was working at an agency. During those hundred days was when I switched from being a 2D illustrator artist to being a 3D artist, I just woke up one day and said it. I’m going to do it. 

So for me, it ties back to what I said in terms of experience, as long as you’re a human being, living every day, you have stories to tell. If you live in Lagos, but you can attest to the fact that leaving your street to buy water on the next street is a story to tell. it’s fascinating that there are so many characters, there are so many people doing so many random things. 

And for me, it’s like, it’s like, it’s like learning a new skill every day, you know, in terms of composition, in terms of lighting, in terms of just learning a new tool or something. I think at the beginning of this year, I started learning a new tool which has been killing me (laughs). And I plan on switching from using the tool I use now, which is Cinema 4D and Octane Render, Photoshop, Adobe Suites, and whatever, to using Unreal Engine Five, which I’ve been learning for quite a while. Trust me, it’s been stressing me, but this is the part that people don’t get to hear about, the sleepless nights, trying to troubleshoot a composition not working. 

So, for me, it just goes back to, we have so many African stories. If we start with Nigeria, we have many tribes, more than a hundred and something maybe more than that. But if you look at it, every tribe has an origin story and even in Yoruba land. Even the different parts of Yoruba land have their aspects of the origin story, like how their people came to be. So, imagine if you’re going through different countries and telling the stories. If you ask me, we don’t have enough people telling African stories. And so, I think 50 years is enough time to at least give enough reverence and enough prominence to these stories because they need to be told. After all, some of the Hollywood movies that we pay so much to look at, have made so much money at the box office. They take, I don’t want to say they steal, but they take from our stories. I usually have conversations with some of my buddies on Clubhouse, He worked on a Marvel movie and talked about how Stan Lee came to Africa, to spend about a year learning about African culture and you can see the influence in terms of how he created a Spiderman, how he created Sango that’s Thor, god of thunder. So, we have so many stories and we have not even started telling. We need more people to tell it. 

So that was just me giving myself ample time to shine enough light on African stories and make sure that people learn about these things. 

Sheyi Owolabi: Tell us about the war hero series. We had a conversation prior where you told me that the series was about your grandfather. Tell us about that story. 

Owo Anietie: Yeah. So, the War Hero series was kind of inspired by my mom when she came to visit me, I think, a few months back. So, we were having this chat and I always try to get this mindset of how things were during her time, maybe as a kid, because she experienced the civil war. So, she was like, back then, there were no cars. Her father had two bicycles and the one her father loved the most was this bicycle called “The White Horse”. So, if you go to the Instagram page and look at the story. The beginning of the story is called “The White Horse”. It’s kind of like highlighting this prized possession. Imagine saying you own a bicycle in 2021 and it’s your prized possession (laughs).

But back then it was so significant to them and so that’s how she went into the story of back then during the war, her father got separated from them. They had to take her and some of her siblings to go live with their grandmother because of the war. That really got to me because as the man, I can’t even imagine getting separated from your family because of the war. A war that’s to a very large extent, you didn’t want to be part of. It’s just something that happened, and you just have to react to it, you know? 

So, he took the kids to the grandmother and all of that. It got me thinking maybe “overhyped” the story. You know, the whole process of him getting separated from the family. I had to reimagine that whole process. And back then, my mother used to tell me stories of when her father was part of the Ekpe society, which is the Nsibidi society. That’s the collection I’m working on now, which are heads with the Nsibidi symbols on their forehead. 

So, my grandfather was a member of that society back then from my mother’s side and my Father’s side as well. Back then if you went to war with them, there was this story about how, if they jump into the water, they turn into crocodiles. All they needed was a bamboo stick, and they could turn into a crocodile.

Very interesting stories, you know. In terms of how, how much they relied on spirituality to win wars. Right now, nobody even prays or anything. Just go to war and shoot anybody they see.

So, this got me thinking. Like, imagine this man getting separated and all he has left is his prized possession, his “white horse”. So that’s the introduction of the piece, you see him walking through this isolated city. and it’s like the aftermath of the war.  You immediately ask this story like, wait, where is he heading towards. So, we have the introduction. It leaves this entire gap of so many questions. Who is this man? Why is he with the bicycle? Where is he going? So, we opened with the white horse. All we know is there’s a man who owns a white horse and that is his most prized possession. Then as he proceeds on the journey, we get to the second part, which is the “close call”. He had a close call with the army because he was on this other side of the Biafran people. So, he was supporting Biafra, fighting against the Nigerian government, the Nigerian army. So, you have to avoid the army by all means. So, he is avoiding the army. Why would a man avoid the army or have a close call with them? Then, you realize, oh! He’s trying to go see his family. Maybe for a day or two, just be with his family, then maybe come back and fight the war. So, he’s trying as much as possible to evade the army. You see his bicycle parked by the side of the tank, then you see the soldiers, on the other side, you see the tank, you see that it’s late at night. 

The lighting condition of this piece is very prominent in terms of, this place is so bright, but it’s night, which gives that feel of the barracks. You go to a barrack and everywhere is so lit. There’s no place to hide because you are running to get away from them. But, eventually, you are still getting into a standoff with the army. What is he going to do? Is he going to surrender? Well, he did, he did surrender in the next piece, you see his bicycle on the ground, he is on his knees, hands behind his head. Then you see the tank, which means they caught him in the morning. You see tanks’ lights, they’re still on, you see the soldiers by the side. 

Just as he’s about to get captured, I had to capture the whole significance of how much people back then depended on spiritualism. Maybe African gods to save them and all of that. Then you see the butterflies as he is kneeling to show that the spirits have come to empower him. The butterflies are green to signify growth. You see the one that’s lying on his forehead and you see his bicycle by the side, he is on this field. Then what’s going to happen next? He gets empowered then smashes the ground, you see the seismic effect, whatever happens, soldiers flying in the air (laughs).

That’s like the sequence of the story. maybe it (spirituality) worked for them. Maybe it didn’t, you never know. they are the only ones that know all these. So maybe they saw a man turning into a crocodile. my own is to tell the story the way they understood it back then. So you get this whole “plot twist” where you see a man that was almost getting captured retaliate. Then you see him leaving the scene with everything scattered, tanks scattered and all. Then I called this “Merry-way”. Then you can still see the aftermath, the green effect.

So, as he is leaving, that’s to be continued. Maybe he reunites with this family. Whatever the next step is, who knows. Maybe he encountered them again. 

So that’s just the reason why I did this. Apart from it being an homage to my grandfather, It’s also an homage to so many people that lost their lives during the Biafran war. I feel like that we don’t talk about that enough in terms of innocent people that, maybe they didn’t know why they were fighting, maybe they knew why they were fighting, but did they really want to fight? That’s the question. They lost lives, some people got injured, people got separated from their family, which my mother’s family was one of them. So, I feel like this is just my way of honoring the souls of the people that passed during the war, maybe it’s not the best way to honor them, but yeah, it’s my way.

Sheyi Owolabi: You spoke about honoring the memory of the people with this series, based on that understanding and even you being a descendant of people that experienced the Biafran war, what do you think about the chaos that comes with war and the devastation that comes with it? 

Owo Anietie: I think If the humans had better ways of resolving issues, like most of the wars, things that lead to it are things that could have been avoided if we look at it. So why would you place most of it about egos, people place their egos as priorities over people’s wellbeing. And I feel like we if we can find a way to avoid war because there are people that profit off it, which is like another conversation entirely. If we can find a way to avoid it, why would we really want to kill ourselves, put people through such traumatic experiences? 

For me, it’s the worst thing ever because I grew up in this compound with this war hero, who used to talk about how during the war, they used to eat raw beans and all of that, it’s nothing I would even wish for anybody, like just going around drinking your pee or whatever. 

It’s just gnarly. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. So, the effects of wars are very terrible. Though I have my theories on, you know, what end of existentialism would be like in terms of what will be humans ultimate end which is a project I’m currently working on, but it’s fascinating to see that at the end of the day, we will still be the ones that end up killing ourselves. It’s just fascinating. What will be the ends of humans? Humans would be the end of humans, so I feel like there’s always a way to avoid all these things. It’s just people place their ego above people’s well-being. So, yeah. Sheyi Owolabi: I really appreciate you giving us your time. Thank you for the interview.

Owo Anietie: Thank you for having me.

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