Art: Axematic the new wave artist of 2022
There aren't many artists who make us stop in our tracks to take a second look, but Akin Okusami aka Axematic is making ripples in the art scene with his compelling works. The London-Nigerian artist sat down with Vingt Sept taking us through his captivating collection and walking his creative process and through his journey thus far.
You grew up in 80s Hackney, once a place where people were scared to walk, and today one of London's most expensive boroughs. What was it like, and what do you think about Hackney today?
I grew up in what some may say was the 'proper' Hackney. We lived in the original Holly Street Estate in Dalston, which was arguably the heart of Hackney at the time. The old estate was built in the 1960s in that brutalism style, which I'm sure, looked beautiful and in accordance with whatever vision they had at the time. But by the time I came around, it was a bit of a rat-infested ghetto. Pretty crime-ridden and a hell-hole to some observers.
Of course, I didn't know any better and loved living there. It was natural not to stand at the back of the lift because it was filled with urine. The long dark corridors were nothing intimidating except for the odd weirdo you might bump into. My mum did up the flat as cosy as she could, so once that door was shut, I felt safe and secure (though we got burgled numerous times).
My fondest memories of that period were the sounds of dancehall music and hard dub reggae coming; it seemed, from every other flat. Idris Elba captured the essence of 1980s Hackney in his film Yardie. Though he didn't have the biggest budget, I think he got the look and feel of the place.
Contrast that to today. The transformation is incredible! The luxury apartments, the expensive cafés, the Michelin-starred restaurants… amazing! I'm pretty sure they've done something about them rats too! It's bitter-sweet for me, though. Where was all of this when I lived there?! While I'm happy that the area's fortunes were raised, gentrification is still a thorny issue. We've seen this movie many times before. A group of immigrants or minority groups bring a richness of culture to a deprived area, make it cool or trendy, and then are sidelined as others reap the rewards. That's what we're seeing all over the world, it seems. From San Francisco to Brooklyn to Stratford. Not cool, not cool at all!
I'm glad the Peace Mural along Dalston Lane is still there, but I sometimes wonder if it is now just a mere piece of decoration or the meaningful symbol it once was.
What was your childhood like, and how does this influence your work today?
I had a much-fulfilled childhood, I must say. I grew up in a single-mother household, and my mother and I are extremely close. We grew up poor, but my mother successfully hid the pangs of poverty from me. She had me thinking we were rich! She spoiled me quite rotten, buying me whatever I wanted. I loved bikes, and living in Hackney meant they would often get stolen. Yet my mum would go out and buy me a new one. Only as an adult did, I realise the extent of her sacrifices. She worked three jobs to pay for it all. I mean, she was shelling out the equivalent of £300 on a kid's bike!
As she worked three jobs, I often stayed with white foster parents in the countryside, a common practice amongst African parents in the 70s and 80s. This gave me contrasting experiences growing up – from the fields of Kent to the concrete jungle of Hackney – it is something that has stayed with me.
My mother also took me travelling with her. She was once a flight attendant and loved travelling. I went to quite a few countries in my childhood whilst my cousins and friends hardly went anywhere. It has spurred my love of culture and to study what makes a group of people behave in the ways they do. Being the sole Black kid in an all-white school definitely makes you know that you're different, which also has stayed with me to this day. Whenever I go on holiday, I try to live like a local, not a tourist. I really love seeing how others live, which is reflected in my work. Issues of culture, or the clash thereof, are usually central to my work which all started in childhood.
You went to an ILEA school dubbed "the poor man's Eton" that taught legendary students such as Skibadee, Phil Jupitus and Martin Offiah. What was it like for someone like yourself, and do you feel it helped you in any way with what you do now as a career?
Our school was one of only two ILEA boarding schools. That school is probably the single institution with the most considerable influence on my life. We had an incredibly well-rounded education, though none of us probably appreciated it at the time. Just like my mother, the school taught you to dream big and that you are the master of your own universe. The school was unique in that it was predominately Black, all of us were from London (mainly East and South London), but the school was in East Anglia!
We probably appreciated the uniqueness of the situation more than anything. And as we were the last students in the school's history, we remain a loose brotherhood of around 500 ex-pupils.
That said, we were exposed to 'posh' sports like shooting, sailing, and fencing, along with other non-London sports such as rugby, cricket and cross-country. We prevailed in all the aforementioned sports and became quite a famous school in the area.
The main thing the school taught me is that there's nothing we can't do or achieve despite the hurdles.
You studied a completely different subject field to what you do today (Marketing). Do you feel that this has helped you in the art world?
To be honest, not really, though it should. I mean, I've not even got my social media game tight yet! Being an artist is about putting yourself out there, which is the sole purpose of marketing, but I haven't married the two skills together. I choose to be a bit naïve on this one, but I believe the best art doesn't need marketing. If it's that good, then it'll consistently market itself. Of course, we all know that that's not how the world works – but we can all dream!
How would you describe your art?
If I had to coin a term, I'd describe the style as Digital Renaissance. Though I do abstract stuff also, I primarily focus on classic portraiture. I love the classic baroque styles of the Old Italian and Dutch Masters. I worked in Whitehall for nearly ten years and spent the many-a-lunch break in the National Gallery, so there's a major influence there. I like to re-create classics with a modern interpretation where possible. Many of my clients want their portraits in that classic style, especially their children as angels or cherubs, which I enjoy doing.
In my work, a social or moral question is always asked, just like with the Old Masters. I don't always set out to do that, but sadly there's always some turn of unfortunate events just around the corner or someone being an asshole on telly that always makes you want to say something. So, it creeps into my art.
Is there any creative/moment in history or artist you hold in high regard?
Oh yes, several. An obvious one is the Renaissance, as just mentioned. I like to merge the periods of the late Renaissance with the Romantic Period. So much good art in a time that the world was changing and truly becoming global. It also paints the mindset of Europe at the time, its attitude towards the rest of the world, and its transition into a new age of discovery. We're tackling the blowback from that era till this day, whether it's the question of religion, supremacy or even climate change, but all were captured beautifully by a plethora of incredible artists.
As a Black man born and raised in Europe, the reasons and circumstances of my presence here now, for good or bad, are captured in all that art.
Being of Nigerian descent, I am naturally drawn to the golden age of the Benin Kingdom as they produced some of the world's most incredible carvings and sculptures. I'm not sure it's truly appreciated the influence it and the old Japanese had on modern art. The craftsmanship is exceptional, and as African lore is incredibly deep, one can only imagine what could've been produced if their kingdom wasn't messed with. It's sad how most Nigerians haven't seen most of these incredible pieces of art because they were looted and reside in foreign museums.
Finally, on a lighter note, I believe the rise of Pixar/Dreamworks is an age in itself. I might even expand that as the CGI age started with Jurassic Park in 1993. Folks like to focus on bad CGI, which has given the overall artform an unfavourable view. But c'mon, those dinosaurs were so damn amazing when they first popped up on the silver screen. Before that, it was dodgy-looking stop-motion, hand puppets or sticking appendages on a distressed-looking lizard. We're so used to incredible animation, but let's remember just how mind-blowing Toy Story was back in 1996!
What inspires you most in the world?
I suppose music inspires me most. I'm a huge fan of hip-hop. As it's the art of the spoken word, I believe it almost intravenously pumps inspiration into you! When Black Thought or Mos Def spit a line, you almost want to stop the music and reflect on what they just said. Rap gets a bad rap (pardon the pun) because of the actions of a few. But most of them, especially unheralded artists, have an incredible way of portraying the world around them, exactly what I try to do with pictures.
Regarding people, I'm very inspired by the likes of LeBron James and Stephen Curry. These supremely talented athletes refused to be used as mere commodities or a piece of meat with no voice, a brain or a say. Serena (Williams), too. It says something for the rest of us whose concerns have long been ignored: these wealthy superstars are still subject to some of the ugly ills of society and are not having it. Yet, even when they are not affected, they still speak out... for us! I have a large portrait of Colin Kaepernick in my living room.
I'm inspired by Barack and Michelle too. I know Obama is now the poster child for paranoid conspiracists, but him merely getting elected twice is still mind-boggling to me. In 2008, I was in that Chris Rock (Bring The Pain, 1996) "I'm saying NEVER!" crowd. But as Eddie Murphy (Delirious, 1983) would say, "…he f*cking won!".
Are there any artists you look up to?
My favourite artist has to be (the Italian painter) Caravaggio. He's probably the reason I wanted to paint pictures, as the aesthetic look of his work is very pleasing, even to someone who isn't into art. He is the reason why I like to use chiaroscuro in my works. Then you hear about his interesting life; knowing the genius and rogue behind the art makes the art even better, in my opinion. I aim to emulate how he tells stories in his paintings, whether subtle or in your face.
I also love the works of Canaletto, along with the likes of Peter Paul Rubens, (Johannes) Vermeer, and (Jan) van Eyck, as my aspiring Renaissance period painters.
John Constable and Joseph Wright of Derby are the English painters who have influenced my work most. The common theme amongst them is the quality and clarity of their works.
Barkley L. Hendricks has a seismic influence on what, how and why I do what I do. He had an effortless way of capturing his surroundings, and everything looked super cool and fly! The stories behind the portraits are amazing. I so want to live his life.
I also look up to CJ Hendry and what she does; I'm a huge, huge fan. She's why I became more driven about my art in the first place.
I was trying to sell t-shirts online and needed a gimmick or reason for people to visit or stay on my prospective website. I stumbled across a video of CJ whilst she was living in a tiny space in New York. A wide-eyed Aussie girl in the biggest of cities. She explained she was selling t-shirts to earn a meagre living so she could continue creating her art. And boy, was her art incredible! One lawsuit and meeting with Kanye West later, the rest is history. She's the shit!
When I see videos of her these days, she still seems to be that same girl in New York, even though she is world-renowned, married, and has a child. I saw her do a TED Talk; it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. She seemed quite surprised that the stuffy world of fine art was taking her seriously. I try to get my work to her level as close as possible, which is a big ask.
So, Caravaggio, Barkley and CJ are what I want to be – simples!
What euphoric moment have you had in your career thus far, and why?
I did a portrait for a couple's 50th wedding anniversary. I was pretty nervous whilst doing the commission because: a) the pressure of producing something for a couple that has been together for that long is always going to be daunting; and b) I had to give a speech explaining the portrait in a room of 200 people at this posh function.
I did the portrait and gave the speech, but the crowd's reaction to unveiling the picture was audible gasps, whoops, and then a huge round of applause. I was expecting applause, as people are polite even if they don't feel something, but I was not expecting THAT reaction. There was a standing ovation. I naturally responded, "I take it you lot like the picture?". Even the golden couple said the portrait had stolen the show, which was priceless to me, especially as the bride is an art lover. To say that moment spurred me on would be an understatement. When the average person likes your work, that is a thrill for me.
There was another moment when I saw a friend who owned a gallery in Wimbledon. It was just after lockdown, and I'd lost contact with him. So I went blindly to see if they were open and if I could use our friendship to perhaps display some of my work in his space.
The gallery was still closed, so I went into a restaurant nearby to get food and see if they knew anything about the gallery. A proprietor of another local business was also having lunch with the owner. Both were art lovers and collectors, with the restaurant filled with art, presumably from local artists.
I showed them the painting I was thinking of asking my friend to display. They both liked it. There and then, they started bidding for the work. It wasn't huge sums, but their bidding got a bit heated. I was never going to sell and even offered to do a similar portrait for each of them, but they were having none of it – they wanted that particular piece. I left the restaurant with both men still arguing! I thought, "I might actually be quite good at this art malarkey". It rubbed my ego the right way!
What was 1990s Peckham like for you?
Peckham during that period was a blast! Again, a bit like my time in Hackney in the previous decade, it was a crime-ridden ghetto, but we didn't know any better. Once in Peckham, you were in the heart of south London. It always lived in Brixton's culture shadow, but Only Fools And Horses and Desmonds put it on the map.
I was in my adolescence at the time, so being a young man who had just left home, it would always be an adventure. Sadly, some of my darkest times were also during this period. I was in a gang; I had been stabbed; and was into petty crime, so I had been locked up. Thankfully, I stayed in college throughout all of this. The benefits of having a good education have left their mark. I knew the street life wasn't for me, but it was great while I was in it.
Peckham also suffers from what I was moaning about with Hackney, as the very people who made it trendy are now being sidelined.
All of a sudden, Peckham Rye railway station is being revamped. A lovely green is being constructed in the station approach. From an art perspective, it is most annoying that they will be reviving The Old Waiting Room, which has been closed for 50 years, to its original art deco grandeur. The coincidence of these projects is frustrating.
When I lived in Peckham, we didn't even know about this Old Waiting Room's existence. Again, not cool at all!
You spent three years living in Lagos, Nigeria; what was the reason behind this?
My parents wanted me to know more about my roots. At the time, my dad lived in Lagos with my sister, and I lived here in London with my mum. We did a switch. I went to live in Nigeria with my dad, and my sister came to London to live with my mum.
Lagos was cool when I knew I was on holiday, but the moment I knew I wasn't coming back to England, it became a nightmare and an eye-opener, even more so when I was sent to a military boarding school in the north of Nigeria. Man, was that an experience!
In hindsight, I definitely appreciate it. I learnt how to understand Yoruba, and I'm bilingual. I learnt other vital crucial life skills, but more importantly, I began understanding the context. You can't take things for granted.
Living in England, I think we sometimes moan about trivial issues, "I can't afford Netflix, " and stuff like that. First World problems, as they say. Well, some people haven't even got electricity in Nigeria, and it's one of the wealthier African nations, so you can only imagine what it's like for people that live in places like the Central African Republic or Somalia.
You've lived in London and Lagos; tell us how both (culturally and generally) influence your work/craft.
Both cities are wildly different but have similarities as they are both sprawling metropolises. When I think about it now, though London is more of a developed city, Lagos is definitely more urbanised. It's a very large, sprawling, almost concrete jungle. It's just mad!
As far as influences on myself, obviously, London is one of the great art cities. At school, we have the privilege of visiting great museums and art galleries from an early age. I lived in Holborn for many years, right on the doorstep of Theatreland, so there was all of that going on influential-wise. London's also a global centre for music, and many of the arts have a significant influence and a long history.
With Lagos, what I took from there is just the hustle, the hustle n bustle of it all, making the most of what you've got and then some. You've gotta get five plus five to add up to fifteen!
Then there's the attitude. Londoners, whilst being hospitable people, are famous for having little patience. Short shrift for small talk or small fry, but Lagosians can be even more brutal. They're known for not having time for "any nonsense".
These factors have helped mould me as a person. Having experienced country living in both the UK and Nigeria, I'm wholeheartedly a city boy! All of that is reflected in my art; I'd like to think it's in your face. You immediately know the subject line, even if you feel you didn't know or have read the message.
At what age did you realise you wanted to be an artist/knew you had talent?
I've always loved art and knew I could draw from nursery. But most of my life, I didn't take it seriously. In fact, I didn't do that well in GCSE art. Another kid in my class, Simon Williams, was (and still is) an incredible artist. So I almost felt, "I don't even want to try to mess with that...".
I worked in the music industry for a number of years managing Drum n Bass and Grime artists and used to airbrush my client's profile pictures myself (in the days when an actual physical photo was used) rather than pay a photographer. I got really good at it, so I started designing the artwork for my artist's mix tapes rather than hiring a graphic designer. Many music industry professionals assumed I had paid a talented designer to do the covers and were shocked to find out it was humble old me!
I knew I had something, and I then switched industries.
I first became a Tax Advisor and then a Civil Servant – two roles as far from the arts as you can get! A few redundancies later, I rekindled the passion that never really went away. Lockdown was the catalyst to really try to turn that dream into reality.
How did you get your big break/first commission, and what did the experience feel like?
My first commission came about when I showed family and friends the work I'd been doing for a bit of fun. I was expecting people to say, "oh, that's nice...." and that would be it.
Then, a friend of mine who had just bought a house in Essex said that he wanted a large portrait of himself in the lobby. The house was large, and he was undoubtedly proud of the pretty pile he'd worked hard to purchase. As soon as they came into his house, he wanted people to see a large imposing picture of himself - sort of like a king and his castle. So I said I'd do it, but only when I had the time. Eventually, I would have created something over the weeks, but he uttered those magical words, "I'll pay you", and I haven't looked back from there! I did the commission.
I unveiled it to him, and we shot a little video because he wanted me to describe the inspiration behind the piece and what went into the process. So he posted that video, which went mini-viral, and then I started to get quite a few enquiries from people about doing work for them and asking for my rates. So I had to get my pricing structure together quickly and did two commissions for a wealthy contractor.
Another friend asked me to do her parent's 50th Wedding Anniversary. That commission was the first time I thought, "OK, I'm a serious artist now".
Since I've been doing those additional videos for my clients, they seem to want that as part of the package. They always want me to come along and do the unveiling in front of their family and friends and give a little bit of a speech. I try to make it more entertaining for them, and that goes down well. Of course, I should charge more for that, but it's fun to do, and it's nice to know that people appreciate your work.
I mean, this is something that I would probably be doing for nothing but being paid to do it, no matter how meagre – I'm pretty blessed! I've still not made it, though. I'm not Damien Hirst or Banksy, but that's the aim – to get to those levels, be able to do nothing but art, and think about nothing but art. I'll get there one day.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring artists trying to make it?
I'd say to young aspiring artists to just keep practising. I mean, that's the only way. Use every conceivable hour of the day that you can spare for your craft. It's the only way to get better, to stay inspired.
I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, and if an idea is in my head, I get the pad out and start sketching. It doesn't matter what time it is – I'm just on it!
I would also say to study other forms of art to get inspiration. For example, you can do your version of a song, a poem, or even another painting. But do your version in your art form or your interpretation. It sounds simple, and obviously, it's not, but putting it together is the tricky part. That can only be achieved with practice.
I'd also advise having an unwavering belief in yourself as well, I think that helps. I often compare established or famous artists' work with mine, convincing myself that I'm just as good as they are, even if they are better than me. What's in it? 2-5% difference in the quality? Don't get me wrong, I'm not delusional. I'm not trying to say I'm CJ Hendry or Michelangelo, but I'd like to think that I'm in the same bracket, you know. Perhaps mid-table of that exclusive league. And even if I wasn't... I'd believe it anyway!
What does the future look like for Axe?
I hope for bigger and better things, naturally. My confidence is pretty high at the moment, so I'm pushing on, though my journey has just started.
Like any artist, I want to be recognised nationally or globally. I wish to be displayed in the big galleries. Though I'm humble by nature and don't have much of an ego, I nevertheless do have an ego! Who wouldn't want their art to sell like a Basquiat at Sotheby's or Christie's (despite my criticism of those institutions and the wider art world)?
I'd like critical acclaim for the hours I've put in, though I recognise that other, possibly more talented artists, who have been in the game longer, are still striving to achieve this. So I guess I'm happy with what I get, but that's entirely different from what I want!
I definitely would love to be in the same space as more established artists than myself. Or meet uber-talented ones who are like me on their way up. That would be cool!
But as it stands, I've still got a lot to say about my artwork. I still feel like a young artist who has a lot to say and a lot to express with a lot of energy. So I want to get it out there, so I'll keep doing that.
I hope to change the world in my own small way through the pictures that I create and the portraits I paint...that's really my main goal.
For further information visit Axematic
Interview by Jheanelle Feanny