- There’s a saying that goes, ‘You are what you do’. If this saying is true, then Mike Asukwo is everywhere you look. You can identify his style wherever you see it; whether it’s a satirical piece in a newspaper or one of his cartoons which someone has shared on Facebook in discussing a trending topic. We like him for making a living in such a unique way in Nigeria; not just art but cartoon art. That’s not to say that it’s the only kind of art the Oron native does. “I wouldn’t be a good cartoonist if I wasn’t an artist first”, he says. “I studied sculpture at Yaba College of Technology. I do Monumental Adult Sculpture and I paint. I still do commissioned portraiture”. And if you’ve been to Calabar then you must have seen some of his sculptural pieces.
Howfana: How did your journery begin?
Asukwo: I used to draw as a kid. My parents thought I would be an engineer or an architect because I was always tinkering with things in the house, repairing things in the house. Unfortunately, the secondary school I went to there was no art teacher so I never had formal art training at the secondary school level. However I was still drawing. I joined the press club and I did some cartooning for the press club.
I went on to study Business Administration. I did that for three years and got really tired of it. After the OND I was doing a lot of art, painting on my own and moving with a lot of artists. At an exhibition in Lagos, someone drew my attention to the fact that I needed to go study art. One of the works I submitted was sold very cheaply. Someone who observed this advised me that it was because I didn’t have a good background in art. And that affected my confidence. So I went back to Yaba College of Technology, and that was my first formal art training.
When it was time to do my HND, I decided to take on Sculpture because I was already painting well. After my HND I hooked up with Reni Folawiyo and we were making hand made items [for about two years]. After that I joined Business Day and worked for about 18 months [around 2001].
How did you come do commissions for the Cross River State Government?
When Donald Duke became the Cross Rivers State Governor, his focus was on the urban beautification project because of the tourism drive of his administration. Someone invited me to join in the sculptural projects and that was how I left Business Day to Cross Rivers State. A lot of the sculptural pieces in Calabar were designed by me and I was part of the execution of the projects. When Liyel Imoke came in to office, we did about four sculptures. While I was doing that I was still contributing to several papers like Business Day, The Abuja Enquirer, The Niger Delta Standard and The Pioneer (Akwa Ibom State). Business Day then suggested that I was too far and they asked me to move back to Lagos. That was how I moved back to Lagos State and I have been there since.
What do you think about the level of appreciation that cartooning has in Nigeria?
It was going down but I believe that Social Media has helped to bring back that appreciation. A lot of people appreciate cartoons but there seems to be a problem with the perception of what a cartoonist should earn. Some people believe that I just do it for the fun of it. A lot of people believe that I just sit down and do a cartoon because I don’t have anything to do with my time, then I just share it on social media. But every work that I post on social media has already been published by Business Day and I post them a day after or the same day. People love cartoons but a lot of people see it as something that you do on a part time basis and not as a career. Also, I think that at the moment UNILAG is the only institution that offers Cartooning as a course in their Department of Creative Arts… not even Yaba Tech that has produced so many cartoonists in Nigeria.
You’ve made a mark with your cartoons. What stands you out?
I think my cartoons have some respect for the readers. When I’m working , I believe I should allow my readers to think and somehow my cartoons engage them… and you could say, this guy is saying something worth thinking about. Also overtime, I have been able to influence people’s thought patterns about certain issues. Also I take every cartoon as a work of art, so you still have to find it appealing even if the subject matter or opinion is not agreeable to you. I employ all the elements of an art composition and make it stand out. Also, I make them topical such that it could be an issue that’ s already on the front burner. That way you could discuss the cartoon or use it as a reference point. You could say, look what this guy said about this thing.
Have you ever had any controversial reaction to any of your cartoons?
There have been many. I don’t do cartoons because I want to agree with everybody’s opinion. I research to know enough about the truth of the matter. Once I do that, I don’t care what the conversation may be about.
Do you still test them out on friends or family?
Yeah. There are some I do hoping that they will not be misunderstood. I might ask a colleague to take a look at it and sometimes people give me input on what to add or take away to make the message clear. I also take considerations to be sure that it is in line with the editorial bent of the newspaper.
Do you think a cartoon has to be funny to be successful? I don’t
No it doesn’t; most times wit doesn’t need humor. Cartoons thrive on absurdities. Like today I woke up to hear that Yusuf Buhari has been discharged from a German Hospital. I then looked at the inconsistency with previous stories in which the Presidency said that he was never flown abroad. In politics, those kinds of cases abound, you have government rhetoric not backed by any fact and then you have pure lies and propaganda. Some cartoons are just there to expose that. The humor might just be in the contradiction or the absurdities. Personally, I don’t force humor. Sometimes, I finish a cartoon and then realize that it’s so funny, even when I didn’t set out to make a funny cartoon.
Each cartoon takes him an average of three hours, even though as he says, he could have been thinking about that concept for days. He says he has files of cartoons that he discarded because he felt they did not pass on their message successfully.
A lot of young people reach out to him to mentor them but he finds that a lot of them are not ready to learn. He believes that it could be the influence of technology. Some of them get disappointed when they ask to know the computer program he uses for his cartoons, and they find out that they are all hand- drawn. He only colors them in Photoshop. Asukwo also believes that many of them don’t do research.
A big fan of Robert Ludlum, he also enjoys watching movie and playing chess. Mike Asukwo is married with three children.