Wearing several hats is not new for most creatives. The ever-restless need to express deep-seated and sometimes intrusive creative thoughts often wins the proverbial battle of the mind. Muyiwa Akhigbe is no stranger to this. He channels his intrusive thoughts via design, art, and music.
I had the opportunity to have a chat with him. Even though it was a year later than planned (I’ll not have it any other way), the conversation we had at the core explores the wave of disruption and transition the art space is currently experiencing.
During the interview, it became apparent that beyond making art in itself, the longing for freedom of expression is at the core of what drives his work, whether it is with delving into the world of Imaginative Realism or his foray into AI art.
I hope the conversation is as enjoyable for you as it was for me.
Who is Muyiwa? Tell us your origin story as an artist and where you are now.
It’s usually very hard for me to describe myself because there are so many things that I have my hands in. So it can be hard for me to say one specific thing. But then, I am an art director and I’m an all-around creative person. I also make music. I compose, I write, and I sometimes produce. I like to call myself a philosopher, first of all because I’m someone who likes to ask questions. I like to probe the things around me. I ask a lot of “Whys”. I am a non-conformist. That is what even informs my creative side. I’m always trying to ask questions. I’m just always probing the norms.
I would say my first encounter with anything creative when I could tell “Oh! There’s something here,” was in school. I was studying at Covenant University, Nigeria, I think I was in my second or third year. I came home for a holiday one of those days. My dad likes flowers a lot, so we planted a lot of flowers in the compound and every morning the flowers will shed their leaves and I’ll be the one to sweep and pack them. This is something I would do every day, but there was a day I had swept everything, and I was about to pack the leaves, but the way I was bringing the dried leaves together, they looked like they were forming a heart shape. When I saw it, I was like, hmm, okay, what’s going on here? I sweep this thing every day. If today will be the only day I’ll have fun while doing it, why not? So I went on to intentionally form the love shape. I was using the broom to carve the sides, so it will form the love shape and I felt it came out nice. I think I took a picture of it. To be honest, I don’t know where that picture is right now and I pray I can find it somewhere (laughs). I feel like that was the day I knew that there was definitely something here.
When I was in my fifth year, I had someone who used to do cover artwork for my songs, and at that time, the person wasn’t available and I didn’t have money to pay any other person, I was like, “How would I do this? This Photoshop thing, is it something that I can actually pick up, learn and see what I can do? Because I would usually see other guys in school who could use Photoshop, who were designers and I would see their work and I really liked seeing stuff like that. I remember, whenever I went out, I looked at billboards, and I just liked what I saw.
So I have this thing, I’m not medically diagnosed but I think I have ADHD. Anytime I stumble on something that is really interesting to me, I hyper-focus on it. 24/7, I am on it.
Design/Art wasn’t something I deliberately knew that I liked until the point where I started showing expression. I got a classmate of mine who had Photoshop to help me set up the software. He put me through for like thirty minutes to one hour and that was it.
That was when I started designing. A couple of years after I had graduated, I started working at an agency. At the agency, there was a colleague of mine, his name is Tayo. Whenever I came into the office in the morning, I would see him working on something. Today he’s trying to fit butterfly wings to the head of an elephant tomorrow, it’s something else. He was just trying to do stuff that I would never think of. And I told him, “This is really nice. How are you thinking of this thing?” I mean, I would just look at him working from afar and say, ah, yeah, nice one, and I’ll go to my own desk, sit down and do my own work (Laughs). That was how it was. I didn’t have any interest per se. Until a couple of months after he got another job somewhere else. I now noticed that, wow, this thing I was taking for granted, you know, me coming to the office, seeing him in his process, doing this creative work, I wasn’t seeing him anymore, I wasn’t seeing that anymore, that was when I realized that I actually missed seeing what he was doing, just being part of that process, even not being an active part, but, just passively.
Then one day, I usually did not have free time because it was an agency and there was always so much work. But that day I had some free time and I said to myself, “That thing that Tayo used to do, let me see what I can think about and see what I can join together to create something. I ended up making something and I did not believe it, it took me like 30 minutes. I created something. It was me combining a city skyline with outer space, and then I added planets, I did UFO and stuff like that, and the thing made a lot of sense. I was like, wow, okay, there’s something here. And remember what I said about, once I discover something that I’m interested in, I hyper-focus on it? That’s how I started doing it. Every day I’ll make sure that I do one. There were many that I did that did not make sense, but I kept at it.
The fact that I did that first one and it worked was all I needed to tell myself that there was something here. That’s how Imaginative Realism came to be for me. This was 2018, years down the line, I started researching and seeing that it was something that’s actually a thing in Europe and the West, but not really in Africa. I mean, I can mention like a few names, but it was still niche. It’s actually still niche in Africa,
For me, it wasn’t even just about opening my laptop and pushing pixels. It was the fact that I could imagine. The things that I would think about that defy the laws of physics and I could open my laptop and make those things happen on my canvas. I would think of wanting to see a ship, on a cloud. Even though that’s not where the ship is meant to be, I made it happen. So it was that freedom for me as a person. That’s really what inspired me, and that’s why I’m now trying to spread the word. Yes, it’s art, but it’s more than just the art, it’s the idea that anything is possible once you can imagine endless possibilities, being above the cap that is placed upon you by society and typical societal norms.
Thank you very much for that elaborate introduction (laughs). Is there an active community of people that do imaginative realism in Nigeria and Africa that you’ve seen and have been able to tap into?
To be honest, I wouldn’t say there’s an active community I know in Nigeria. However, I know a few people who are in this space. I can say a few people know each other, but it’s not centralized in a typical community fashion. That’s even one of the reasons why I reached out to you. Because the plan was to set up a community, so that we know ourselves, and everyone who plays in this space, and see how we can help each other move forward, and even spread. I believe it’s not even just about the arts, but it’s what it connotes. There are a whole lot of things going on around us that are just trying to keep us in a state of mental bondage. But this (Imaginative Realism) is speaking about mental freedom. Thinking of something and bringing that thing to life. That’s the whole premise that we want to build this community on.
Who are some of the people that you know that are doing cool stuff in the Imaginative Realism space, both in Nigeria and Africa in general?
In Nigeria, I would say Tayo, the guy that I actually saw doing this. I have forgotten his surname at the moment. But yeah, Tayo plays in the space. I know Kemi Solaja. She’s amazing. There’s also Morenike. So I’ve been able to mention a few people that play in the space.
Based on what you’ve said, do you see Imaginative Realism from an artistic point of view, as a way of bending reality to your will so to speak?
I actually do. Imaginative Realism to me is bending reality to fit my imagination. There is what is, and there is what could be. It’s me trying to use what is, to fit into what could be in my head.
It’s me saying, how can I go against the norm from an imaginative standpoint? There is a video I always reference. It’s by Coldplay called Up & Up. The whole video is Imaginative Realism in motion. Every scene, every shot. You would be amazed. It’s really cool.
The conversation around AI has been around for a while. But in recent times, there have been several conversations around AI with regard to art. We’ve seen the rise of AI art engines such as Midjourney, DALL-E, etc.
Kindly walk me through how you got into AI art and what you think about the medium in general.
I was online one day and I saw the news about someone who entered an art competition with an AI-generated artwork and he won. It became an issue and people weren’t happy. But the whole fiasco started the conversation about the ethics around AI art and co.
I was intrigued by the process. You type in some words and art comes out. I said to myself, “Let me go and try this thing”. So, I went on Discord and tried Midjourney. I think the first thing I tried had the moon in it and I saw what came out. Then, I tried a girl riding a bicycle under the water and I was wowed. I started to enjoy it then I realized Midjourney first-time users had limited tries and that was disappointing. That whole experience became like crack. I needed more (laughs). I started looking into more AI art generators. That was when I found Dawn AI, Starry AI. I found DALL-E. I was exploring with them. The more I did that, the happier I became. I was really enjoying the experience. At that time, my former Instagram account was suspended. I opened another to share my art. I was using my phone to do all of these. Because of how quick the process was, it made me want to do more. Unlike using Photoshop to create artwork. It will take time. Using AI was quicker and I was getting results that I liked.
I even got recognized by one of the AI Art companies. Dawn AI ended up giving me a free 1-year subscription to keep making AI art. I got into another competition with Starry AI where I got some points to keep making AI art.
After all of these, I started thinking about how to take it to the next level. How I could bring AI art into my professional practice as an Art Director. There are marketing campaigns I’ve done at my workplace that I did with AI. Because that’s where the world is going. I mean, Adobe, the makers of Photoshop just dropped their own AI engine called Firefly. And I’ve been exploring that.
I can’t even say that’s where the world is going to cause we are already there. I mean, look at Chat GPT. As you’re using Midjourney and other AI art generators for the art, you go to Chat GPT for your copy.
Technology has always advanced art. I mean, we came from using oil on canvas, then we started doing digital painting. From digital painting, we are now seeing AI art at work. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future? Maybe as you’re thinking it, you’re creating it, you don’t even need to type out the words, you’re just thinking it in your head.
I’m here for it. I would explore, as long as you know, my curiosity stays alive.
I have an online gallery called Nartatangi. It means “unique” in Filipino. But then it has a twist to it. instead of “Natatangi”, I made it in “Nartatangi”. So it has “art” in it. I use the page to showcase all my work, from Imaginative Realism, to what I’m doing with AI and all.
I just want to keep creating and I want to meet other people who are creating in this space and just communicate, share ideas, and build a community.
Do you think AI will disrupt the art scene or it is doing that already?
I think with any new technology, it is definitely disruptive. And I don’t mean disruptive in a totally bad context. The technology has come and has changed, or if not still changing the way we are interacting with art in terms of the process. I mean, artists who would spend hours or even days painting, spending time, energy, and sweat to create their art. Now it can be done in minutes, seconds.
I would be lying to myself if I say that, those artists who have spent time perfecting their work, would accept this technology just like that. Because nobody wants to see what they’ve spent a long time perfecting become so easy to do for people who haven’t spent as much time. That was why in that art competition, the artists that brought their work, were not having it after the artist with the AI-generated artwork won. There’s also the conversation of art-style copyrights. Art styles of very popular artists that are dead like Basquiat for example. He spent years perfecting his work, then an AI engine just learns the patterns and the way his work looks over time and generates it. Because how the AI art engine works is that, they feed the engine with lots of these artworks. The engine now learns so that whenever someone types the prompts, it’s just going to bring it out. Including the art style that you want.
And anyway, I’m glad that unlike before, regulations are being put in place here and there. it’s still relatively new technology, and it’s still going to take time for very massive regulation to be done.
I feel like that’s the thing with any form of technology. When it comes, it comes with its good and bad. So, the regulation would help manage that a bit. It’s still early days
One more question. Yes. So I think generally as an artist, uh, you’ve mentioned your origin story as an artist, imaginative realism, AI art, etc. I think I would just like to touch on, uh, your own inspiration as an artist. Who and what has been your inspiration as an artist, as a creator?
This is a good question. funny enough, my own is actually slightly different because there’s one thing that I realized and I always say, I never, I never follow artists. I follow the art.
Exposure has been my number one helper in the sense that I make sure that I am always exposed to creative things.
I look at my surroundings. By just going out, seeing billboards around. I also go to Pinterest for a lot of stuff. I go to Behance. I go to Ads of the World. Just to see what’s going on. I probably, I’m not even looking for anything.I am always in that state of exposing myself to things. It could even be things that I listen to. Like podcasts. It could be anything at all. That’s it.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Thank you for having me.