No padi for jungle; My brothers pay for their costumes —Tony Okoye

By Lolade Sowoolu
Anthony Okoye of the Okoye family
Anthony Okoye of the Okoye family
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To say that the Okoye family is a blessed and gifted one is truth-telling. Much has been written in the papers and aired on radio and television about Nigeria's ruling R & B singing twins- Peter and Paul stage-named, P-Square.

A lot of P-Square loyalists also know that their brother, Jude Okoye, is behind their
fascinating, colourful and creative music videos. In fact, Jude is one of the most highly rated music video producers Nigeria has at present.

Now, we unveil to you another of the P-Square brothers, Anthony Chukwuma Okoye, an artist. Soft-spoken yet very expressive, Tony, a very gifted first-class graduate of Creative Arts from the University of Maiduguri, whose first painting was the portrait of the Lord Jesus, speaks on his three dimensional painting (3D painting) and how his singing brothers' (P-Square) fame has helped and, at the same time, challenged his profession. His works definitely speak volumes, as does his clientele base. Enjoy the excerpts.

Apart from being brother to P-Square, please introduce yourself?

My name is Anthony Okoye. I love painting. I'm from a family of ten- mother and father inclusive. I'm the fifth born and from Anambra State. I was born and brought up in Jos where I did my primary and secondary schooling.

Then, for my university, I went to the North to study creative Arts, where I graduated with a First Class because I already had arts in me. I was born an artist.

Why did you choose to study arts for a degree?

Let's just say I've been drawing all my life. It's some-thing I have passion for, so when I got the opportunity to go to school to study, I decided to study what I am good at instead of exploring something else.

Many other art-inclined people, especially actors and singers, believe that there is no point going to school to study what you already have in you. How come you think differently?

Talents differ. Many people now know that going to school is very important but the thing about music is that, once there is a talent and delivery, your fans do not care if you are a graduate or not.

And acting too is almost about expression. But for painting, even if you have the talent, I mean you are a creative human being alright, there a lot of other things that should come with it. By that, I mean the business side to painting. If you are not well enlightened and you call yourself an artiste, people will price you cheap because, to sell works like these, you need to convince people to buy.

Human beings can see a work and say, 'I love this work'. But then, when they see the owner of the work and he is asked to define his work and he can't express himself, they are turned off. Also, in going to school, you meet people. So it's very important to be educated.

Was first class a conscious target?

I went into school with the aim of making a good result. That was the important thing for me to do then. But, my lecturers probably felt 'this guy is just an asset' as they called me then. So, maybe I just did my best. It was a good piece of cake for me because I only majored on my strength.

Let's take it from the beginning. How did your passion for arts grow?

While growing up, I used to like comic books like Super man, Iron man, Spider man, Ice man and the likes.

So, usually, I'd attempt to replicate the drawings in my own drawing book. Then, I discovered that, along the line, I started writing my own stories, creating my own comic book in my own way. Later, I started going into molding. We had this beach in Jos where I'd go to get clay. I remember wanting to mould human statues and my challenge would be how to join the head to the neck.

Many times I tried, but the next morning I would discover that the head had dried and fallen off and then I would start crying because I was so small and didn't understand that it's skeletal support that makes the head stand on the neck. Then I went into painting immediately I finished secondary school.

Though my dad was pushing me towards studying Political Science for no particular reason, I still attempted a Diploma in the University of Jos before moving on.

How did you convince your dad about your intentions?

I had this friend from primary school who was already in 200Level in the University of Maiduguri while I was in UniJos. He came around, knowing I was good in arts, and asked me what I was doing with Political Science when there was an Arts department without fine artists in his school. I was already one and half years gone in Political Science then.

When the next set of forms were out, I told my mum to cover me up and, secretly, I went to Maiduguri for three days, obtained the form and began the admission process without my father's knowledge and the rest is history.

How financially rewarding has painting been?

It's really rewarding; that's the bottom line. It's not always like that but when the jobs come, it is. At present, with the clients that I have; in a week, I must sell something. The gain is okay.

But many artists will differ in submission. Why do you think your experience is different?

It's all about packaging. When I see artwork along the road, I laugh. You can not display an artwork on the roadside and expect people to buy it for good money. The location has already reduced its value. Then, of course, it's important you have a good dress sense apart from the fact that you must be good.

Many artists can't paint without having a reference when, ordinarily, an artist should be able to mix his colours and paint with his eyes closed. My own works are original.

What's the unique selling point of your paintings?

When you look at my work, you'll notice that it's quite different from every other painting you see every other day. I call it three dimensional painting (3D) because it's not common. It was part of my project then in school. You know, I'd see painting every-where and they were all flat but I wanted something different.

So, I went on research until I achieved this and it's really working. I have been selling my paintings for a long time now and not once has anybody returned my work saying this part or that is falling off. It remains forever the way it was made.

What's the connection with your clothing line?

As time went by, I noticed something about clothing. I love fashion very much till date. I noticed that what makes people buy clothes is not really the material itself but the art work on the fabric. Without those stones or accessories on the cloth, the cloth is just there.

So, I thought this is another avenue for expressing arts, provided one can combine his primary and secondary colours well. That gave birth to Ajeh. Ajeh is an abbreviation of ajebutter.

Why are so many celebrities setting up clothing lines?

Most of these clothing lines, if you go and check out what they display, are the same things when compared. There is no creativity. I know a lot about clothes and art so I have every credential to do it the way it should be done professionally and artistically.

I was at a fashion show on Sunday, and out of the twelve designers who paraded their clothes, only a guy who came from Jos stood out. You should have seen what he did with leather and that's an example of a designer who knows what he's doing. Every other person was just showing African prints and combats, same pants and all that but this guy put creativity into use.

Are you saying there's something wrong with designing the African prints?

Not that anything is wrong with the fabric. It's just that a person like me will rather buy plain materials and create my own African design on it because I'm an artist. That makes it unique. Then I can beat my chest and say go and check this anywhere else if you'll find it. I design T-shirts, like what I'm wearing.

Then there's what I call funkified or 'celebrity' suits. I don't make formal or bank suits, except on demand. I make suits with print; like the type my brothers, P-Square, wear. I make natives and jeans too.

How long does it take to arrive at a good painting and what are the price range of your creations?

I paint up to three works at a time. That makes it faster. I noticed, as I grew, that spending two to three weeks on one was time-wasting. My biggest painting so far is sized 6ft 9” and it took me about a month to finish. I will not receive anything less than a million naira to repeat that painting or something similar.

My smallest painting of about 2ft 2” will go for N75,000 while my biggest painting sold went for N370,000. I charge my brothers for their costumes, only not as much as I would other customers. My suit price range falls between N50,000-N100,000, depending.

Do you think you could have come this far if you were not related to Peter and Paul?

Yes. In fact, I would have gone very far. People seem not to realise that the fact that I am with P-square has even made the work harder because there are a lot of things competing for my time and I am unable to focus on my painting. Remember, I choreograph with them.

It means every show P-Square is performing I have to attend. Now, it's because of P-Square that I am embarking on a clothing line. If not for them, I won't be thinking along that line, I would just focus on my painting.

So, it's not about the big clients?

I know where I started from. I know how many paintings I sold in Jos even before P-Square arrived Lagos. I can easily walk into any office and say, 'See, I have this for sale'. It's about presentation.

The best P-square's connection will do for me is introduce me to a client. They don't do the talking for me. I know what I do, I have passion for it and I believe in my work.

Why is it taking you this long to set up on your own when you don't have any financial constrain to doing so?

It takes time to convince people. You can't just wake up and say you want to open a gallery or set up a clothing line. First you have to convince people that what you do is worth their money. I still operate from home now. I attempted a solo exhibition at the Terra culture late 2006.

It was not a success and I've realised that I rushed it. Many people came because it was Tony of P-Square and not really because of what I could do. They didn't know what I was capable of then.

But now, people are beginning to know me as an artist so before this year runs out, I should stage another exhibition and, maybe, get an office in another year.