Focus and preparation. They matter in school, in tennis, and they are two critical ingredients in the artistic practice of muralist Aniekan Udofia.
The artist's childhood began in Washington, DC, before a family move took him to Nigeria. Udofia ultimately returned to DC, where he has become well-known for the expansive, celebratory compositions he has added to the urban landscape — works that reveal the hand of a seasoned illustrator and the imagination of a comic-book devotee.
Also in the spirit of celebration, this summer Udofia helped to commemorate an important milestone in the annals of DC sports. To honor 50 years of the Citi Open® tournament — the capital's premier pro tennis competition — Udofia was commissioned by Citi to paint a 40-foot-wide mural that captured the spirit of DC tennis and the impact of the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation (WTEF).
The WTEF is a local nonprofit that offers educational programs and tennis instruction to scores of DC youth. The tournament, which Citi has sponsored since 2012, raises much-needed funds for the WTEF to help fulfill its mission to empower and educate young people — through their swings and studies alike.
Udofia's vivid artwork, spanning 10 panels, was displayed throughout the event (held July 28 – August 5) and has since been rehung in its final home at the WTEF facilities.
Here, Udofia shares his thoughts with Life and Money by Citi on the mural commission, his chosen medium, his city, his inspirations and the sport of tennis.
You were born in Washington, DC, but spent many of your formative years in your parents' native Nigeria before returning to America. What artistic influences and interests did you pick up along the way?
Aniekan: Me and my two siblings were born here in the US, and our parents used to buy us coloring books — that's how I originally developed an interest in drawings and grew to like comic books. Once we moved back to Nigeria, comic books became a bigger influence in my life, especially when I discovered other kids were into them.
Later on, as a teenager, my interest in comic books transitioned into curiosity of how to actually begin creating illustrations. A lot of illustrated album covers and book covers began to catch my attention. I wanted to be part of the creation, particularly hip-hop album covers. By the time I came back to the US, I dove straight into illustration as a career.
To this day, I will buy a book based on the cover if it's well done!
Are there similarities between illustration and the large-scale murals you are commissioned to make today?
Aniekan: Even though I do large murals, I still have kept an illustrator's mindset. The style and technique are constant, but the subject matter changes. Each [mural] panel; I can see it as a comic-book page. With illustration you can implement so many unique styles and concepts — it doesn't have to be narrowed to one thing. I like how my range of passions —from comics to hip-hop — come together when working as an illustrator. Since my original influences were comic-book artists, I have a broad understanding of really good illustrators to source my inspiration from.
Mural painting seems like both a very physical and mindful act. How do you stay present and aware as you work?
Aniekan: I keep the relation to the sketch, I'm committed to the sketch. The sketch takes three weeks to a month to develop. In that much time, I have this sketch embedded in my memory. Because I've spent so much time and energy on the sketch, once I go to the wall I can literally paint without a sketch and be fine.
Can you talk about some of the figures and imagery you've included in your work for the WTEF and the Citi Open?
Aniekan: In this mural, the narrative focuses on the students in their element — both in terms of education and athletics. So you see kids studying and with mentors, and then an action shot of a kid playing tennis. Conceptually, there are also images of Arthur Ashe and a DC flag to draw in the historical sense and include DC relevance. The pencils and ribbon floating throughout the mural help add movement.
Because it's going to be displayed in two locations, I wanted to serve a dual effect, where it is relevant both at the Rock Creek Tennis Court during the Citi Open, and at the WTEF center.
What excited you about this commission?
Aniekan: I was really excited about being able to create something that is historic in collaboration with WTEF and the Citi Open right in my hometown of DC. It's about having the opportunity to yet again create something that the public can enjoy as well as be educated by. It really got me excited and inspired — the ideas started flowing instantly when I got the call for the commission.
How do you see your public murals in relation to the community they inhabit?
Aniekan: The way I envision a mural in a public space is specific to each community. It is both public art, but also commercial work. I also want to create something that can resonate with people without being too preachy or too intense.
I think one of the major reasons why my murals resonate with a lot with people is because I tap deep into my illustration background, and ask what the narrative is. If this was a book cover, what would attract someone to say I want to read this book? It's the same thing with the murals. I can't create something that the community wouldn't like to see the next day. I have to create something that they're proud of, and that I'm proud of.
Where do you find creative inspiration in DC?
Aniekan: I usually try to find inspiration by taking time off and doing things that rejuvenate me and my work, while keeping me grounded. I often find sparks of inspiration in books. I go to the movies. For me, going to the movies isn't just about watching what's on the screen, it's about watching peoples' reactions to things: the environment, the mood, the lighting and color. I consider all those elements when I'm developing a mural.
I also love playing ping pong. I lose my mind if I go somewhere where there's a ping pong table! When I'm done for the day, I'll often hang out and play ping pong to keep my mind fresh — by the time the work comes again I don't feel tired or stressed or boxed in.
I actually get excited because all the things I'm doing in DC come to life through my art. There is an opportunity to implement my experiences into something to share with others.
Do you like to play or watch tennis? If so, how'd you get into the sport?
Aniekan: That's funny, I actually have dabbled in tennis. Being onsite creating the mural, I have been tempted to hop on the court and play — it's something that stimulates my mind. I loved the idea of just getting on that court and the challenge of serving the ball over the net to the other side and receiving it.
But I'm not as good at tennis as I am at ping pong!
The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.