Eli Waduba Yusuf, 26, is making headlines after his pencil drawing of Hollywood comedian, Kevin Hart, went viral with the star acknowledging the work.
The 26-year-old Chikun, Kaduna State-born artist spoke to Daily Trust about his sudden rise to fame, and more.
Daily Trust: How did you get into art?
Eli Waduba Yusuf: I started drawing when I was eight. I used one of my 12 notebooks for drawing cartoons. I took 11 subjects and used one of my notebooks to draw. I however faced some challenges after my junior secondary school with my dad. He wanted me to study a course like Medicine, Law, Engineering or something like that, but not art. I began battling with going to art or science class. I ended up going to art class but didn’t get into polyethnic for art. I ended up studying Cooperative Economics and Management.
I did my first two years and I was supposed to do my one-year industrial attachment. I become confused because I never really had it in mind to work for anyone. I was thinking of what to learn and went for tailoring but, my mind was still on being an artist. Then I stumbled on Arinze Stanley’s work and I couldn’t believe it was done by hand. I said if he could do this, then I can also do it.
I started practicing and I tried to beat my record. Every day, I tried to do better than the day before. Along the way my dad had to accept and support me. I remember he had to sell a plot of land to send me to training college at Ungwan Mai Gero, Kaduna, to learn to paint and draw. He bought my kit and all I needed. But at some point, I had to return back home to continue to practise here.
DT: Why did you decide to draw Kevin Hart?
Yusuf: I have always liked Kevin Hart. I watch a lot of African American movies and love his work. I just felt this is someone I admire. I never knew it would get out of this country. I decided to draw him. One, I like him, I got a good picture of him. It took me two weeks to do the portrait. I had customers’ works to do, also. I would drop his to do theirs, and then come back to his.
DT: What was on your mind when you started?
Yusuf: When I started, I told myself, Eli you are not good in Mathematics or office work. Go for your passion. You can try it, you don’t know what will come out of it. It is something that can take you anywhere. I decided that since I had the talent, I would work on it. I got to a point where I was discouraged because people were not coming. I was tempted to get a job, but changed my mind. Even if nobody was coming, I would be doing my personal work.
When I decided to draw him, I had a strong belief that he may see it but I didn’t know when. I was encouraged to go ahead with it, not knowing what would come out of it
When I finished it, I posted it on Facebook and asked people to help me share. A friend asked me to open a Twitter account and tag him, which I did. To my surprise I saw over 3, 000 reactions within two days. It was so shocking. I never thought it would go far this quick.
DT: Could you describe those first moments when you saw his response?
Yusuf: (Laughter) I saw someone’s screenshot with his comment because I was not on Twitter at the time and didn’t know he saw it. I began thinking if it was a scam and someone trying to play a fast one on me. Fortunately, I saw his direct message and that he had followed me back. I said, ‘Jesus Christ, is this for real?’
DT: Have you spoken to him or it’s just the messages you have exchanged?
Yusuf: He asked for my contacts and said he would be in touch. I got his message the following day from him and we have corresponded.
DT: Is it still a dream, are you pinching yourself?
Yusuf: It is still like a dream. I am still here in my place, not believing all of this is happening. I don’t even know what to say right now.
DT: Did you cry, scream, throw your phone down?
Yusuf: (Laughter) Wow! I first threw my phone on the floor. I then ran out of the house to my best friend’s house but he wasn’t home. It was late at night and it felt even more like a dream. But I went on my knees and prayed in thanksgiving to God. What He did for me is what my name Shekwonuwaduba means – God is the way maker. I cried, I prayed, I gave thanks.
DT: What is your father saying about this?
Yusuf: My father passed away last year. He gave me his blessings until his last days and encouraged me to go on with my art. He was very overwhelmed when my sister won the Ms. Gbagyi of Nigeria pageant. I am sure that if he had seen this, the joy would have been triple.
DT: What of your mum?
Yusuf: My mum doesn’t quite understand the magnitude of this. She is not formally educated but she understands that her son has achieved something big.
DT: What does all this mean for you?
Yusuf: This recognition has gone a long way. Even if he didn’t respond to me, the work has done a lot for me. I now have over 20,000 followers on Twitter. People now know me and my work. It has paved a way for me and gone a long way for me to achieve my dreams.
DT: Hart says he will buy the work. What have you done with it and would it be a difficult piece to let go of?
Yusuf: I didn’t do it for sale. I meant it as a gift to him and it still is. I am not changing my mind even as he has proposed to pay for it.
DT: What about the ones for the other stars?
Yusuf: For those ones, we’ll discuss. (Laughter)
DT: What’s your advice for young Nigerians who have made and will make your decision not to work for anyone?
Yusuf: You can do anything if you believe, and stay focused. Challenges will come. I had my fair share, but do not let them discourage you. Work on your talents, and develop them.
DT: What was it about Arinze Stanley’s style that got you?
Yusuf: There were times I could not differentiate his works from photographs. He is very, very good. I would say ‘wow, this thing is not real.’ After a while, I began to understand him and improved myself.
DT: What else do you do apart from portraits?
Yusuf: I also draw animals. Portraiture is my comfort zone.
DT: Which of Hart’s movies are your favourite?
Yusuf: ‘Ride Along.’ He was so funny in it. What got me laughing so much was the last bit where he fell inside the water and couldn’t even save himself. I laughed so hard at that scene. I also like ‘Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady.’
DT: Who are you looking to draw next?
Yusuf: I first would like to finish Kevin Hart’s portrait first.