The New Frontier: African Artists Tap Into a Digital Goldrush

How non-fungible tokens are helping them get exposure and access into the global art market

The New Frontier: African Artists Tap Into a Digital Goldrush
Healing by Taslemat Yusuf listed on OpenSea. ©Taslemat Yusuf

If non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the new goldmine, then African artists from Nigeria to Sierra Leone have started digging. More and more artists from Africa are exploring this new technology to fully extract the value of their work and monetize it.

Charles Awelewa, a 23-year-old biochemist turned photographer based in Ekiti, Nigeria, struggled for years to make a living with his photography. Although he had studied biochemistry at Ekiti State University, Awelewa discovered that his first love was taking photos. At first, he used his cellphone, an old Infinix s4. “At that point, I wasn’t doing it to make money,” he explained. “I was just doing it out of my passion for photography.” Awelewa eventually decided that he wanted to try to make a living from his art. He shared his work on Instagram, hoping to get commissions to do photo shoots, but no one ever reached out to hire him. Even though he would post his work two or three times a day, hoping to catch up on Instagram’s algorithm, the likes Awelewa received on his photos did not equate to requests for purchases.

In April 2021, a friend and fellow photographer gave him his first professional camera, a Canon EOS 50, and encouraged Awelewa to consider selling his prints as NFTs, digital assets that can be sold or traded. Awelewa was skeptical at first, as he knew little about NFTs or blockchain technology, which is a digital way to record an asset that makes it difficult to hack and change its information. He also didn’t believe that anyone would buy his photos for more than $20, the average price of what he had managed to sell his pieces for up until then. In December, he decided to give it a try anyway. Within two hours of joining OpenSea, an NFT trading platform, he sold his first piece for $1,000. “I couldn’t stop shaking,” he said, remembering his reaction when he saw the transaction receipt.

Awelewa’s work is striking. On his page on OpenSea, one of his photos is a black-and-white portrait, entitled “Lockdown,” of an anguished boy who captures the fear of the COVID-19 quarantine. It’s listed for $1,916. A colored photo of a goat and her kid, titled “Strength of a Mother,” is listed at $684.38. For Awelewa, the prices are far higher than he had ever imagined he might be able to collect for his work. He has no regret taking the plunge into the world of NFTs. “You miss 100% of the chances you don’t take,” said Awelewa.

For artists anywhere, selling art typically promises only meager returns. But NFTs have opened new possibilities, giving African artists global exposure for their work and allowing them to earn enough income to make a living.

NFTs are a way to own digital assets on a computer database known as the blockchain. These assets can be paintings, photographs, music, memes and books. The NFT space is dominated, however, by digital art and photography, with artists and NFT art collectors creating an ecosystem in the 3D virtual world otherwise known as the metaverse. The interaction takes place on NFT market sites such as OpenSea and Foundation, platforms that allow users and collectors to create, explore and purchase art works, using a type of digital or cryptocurrency called ethereum, or ether, which is its single unit. These platforms have democratized digital art sales and made it possible for artists like Awelewa to have more autonomy in how they market their work and allow them to connect with potential buyers more easily.

NFTs have been around since 2014, but the global boom and demand for them appeared at the peak of COVID-19 in early 2021. Prices then soared. The artwork “Quantum” by Brooklyn-based digital artist Kevin McCoy, for example, was first put up for sale in 2014, and in 2021, Sotheby’s sold it for $1.4 million. Subsequent pieces such as “Bored Apes Yacht Club” by Gordon Goner (pseudonym) and “The Breakthrough” by Mike Winkelmann (Beeple) sold in 2021 for $24.4 million at Sotheby’s and $69 million at Christie’s, respectively. Similarly, a piece from the collection CryptoPunks, which was launched by Canadian software developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson in 2017, sold in February 2022 for over $23 million. NFTs are now being used for fundraising too, it seems. In March, Ukraine Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov announced that the Ukrainian government will soon launch NFTs to fund its military in the defense against Russia’s invasion. In early June, Michael Chobanian, president of the Blockchain Association of Ukraine, announced plans to digitize cultural artifacts as NFTs for preservation..

It appears that this is the era for artists to finally cash in. Darius Himes, the international head of photography at Christie’s, said the auction house’s goal is to bring attention to an existing NFT marketplace and highlight the work of non-mainstream artists. “Christie’s is good at amplifying markets,” Himes said. “The promise of this market very early on was global accessibility.”

And that’s good news for Black and African artists trying to break into the art market. At the beginning of the NFT trend, most of the artists who benefited were from Western countries, mostly white men, and they had the highest level of accessibility in the NFT space. Access to information on NFTs and how to get the attention of collectors was limited for most minority artists. If these artists couldn’t get the chance to place their work in galleries, they had to rely on social media platforms like Instagram and compete for algorithms so their target audience would see and maybe buy their work. This was not an assured proposition, however, and it was hard to earn a sustainable income.

African artists soon realized that it was important to start carving out spaces where they could come together to share their work with NFT collectors and build communities of support for one another. So they created online groups on Twitter and Clubhouse, spreading the word about what NFTs are and how to sell them. Soon African artists learned how to market and sell their work on platforms like OpenSea, and the dynamic has since changed. Within the past six months, some of the biggest NFT sales have been from Nigerian artists. Nigerian digital artist Prince Jason Osi-nachi Igwe (Osinachi), for example, put up his collection of digital paintings, “Different Shades of Water,” at Christie’s in October 2021, where one of his pieces is listed between $35,000 and $60,000. Earlier, in March 2021, another Nigerian artist, Anthony Azekwoh, sold one piece of his digital illustration, “The Red Man,” as an NFT for $25,419, after the piece had gone viral on Twitter a year earlier.

The growing communities of African NFT artists are now tuning into Web3, decentralized apps that run on blockchain technology. This has bridged a gap between artists and consumers, by reducing the need for traditional art galleries. The disruption has enabled artists to plug into the technology and encouraged many of them to join NFT networks — opening avenues and access many of them could imagine only in their dreams. Take Taslemat Yusuf, a digital illustrator living in Lagos, Nigeria, for example, who found solace in creating digital art during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Yusuf’s vivid illustrations, all made on her iPhone, focus on celebrating Black women and feature them resting at home, on a beach or embracing a lover. “NFTs have allowed me to be financially free and work as an independent creative. I feel like I value myself more,” Yusuf said.

Art was always this 21-year-old’s first love, but money was slow to follow, just like with fellow Nigerian artist Awelewa. Yusuf didn’t think it would ever be possible to make a living from her art. But then her sister, a photographer who was already selling her work as NFTs, introduced her to the technology. Yusuf signed up on OpenSea sometime in May 2021, and eight days later she got her first sale for $2,000. It was a game changer, bringing her economic freedom and the possibility of having her work appreciated globally. With her success selling NFTs, she has been able to move out of her parent’s home, pay her rent, and invest in equipment like a new iPad and laptop for her work. To make her art reach a wider market, she now creates collections, pricing them at $100 per piece, so that more collectors can buy her work.

As African artists tap into this new technology to sell their work, NFT collectors have also been part of a supportive ecosystem, buying the work of artists whose stories resonate with them. Daliso Ngoma is an NFT art collector from South Africa and the managing director of a tech startup, African Technopreneurs, which provides tech solutions to small businesses. He got involved with cryptocurrency, bitcoin and ethereum initially, but soon he became fascinated by NFTs. “At first I thought it was a silly idea,” he said. “But I decided to try it out and see what the craze is all about.”

He soon caught NFT fever and has collected over 600 NFT pieces. He became enthralled with art pieces that merged African cultural images with the new digital technology. He is drawn mostly to digital illustrations that tell futuristic stories rooted in African mythology, like the work of Owo Anietie, a 27-year-old Nigerian 3D artist who creates futuristic illustrations of Africa called Afro Droids. “I like the kind of art I’m buying as opposed to people telling me what kind of art I’m supposed to like,” Ngoma said.

NFT influencers are also important bridge builders in the rising African NFT ecosystem. Elizabeth Tsehai, an Ethiopian-American NFT art collector, thinks that networking spaces are important for NFT artists to share their work and build a community. As such, she hosts a Twitter group of artists and collectors where they discuss how African artists from around the world can tune in and connect to this digital marketplace.

Tsehai thinks that the rise of NFTs could also be a golden opportunity for African artists. “Black people missed out on generational wealth, especially during the dot.com era. The metaverse is now valued at around $8 trillion dollars, and Black artists can now tap into it,” said Tsehai, who has worked on promoting African businesses for years with companies like Mastercard. As a collector, Tsehai is also excited that NFTs have created an opportunity for Black artists to showcase their work directly to potential buyers in intimate digital spaces like her weekly Twitter space, without having to pay shipping fees to expose their work to collectors in physical galleries. “There is unbelievable art coming out of the continent, and now collectors from all over the world can access it without any barriers or middlemen,” Tsehai said.

Many in the art world believe this development is shaping the way people look at art. “I’m looking forward to people adapting their mindset and their eyes to this new kind of art,” said Cheryl Finley, an art historian at Cornell University. “How does that shift when we enter a new form of technology and a new way of seeing?”

As an art historian and curator, she adds that the art industry has evolved over the years and digital technology is already a significant factor. Finley thinks that established artists are adapting to it and some artists, many Black artists among them, are benefiting from it, creating more communities both online and offline. “The digital art world is the present for artists who are doing cutting-edge work on adapting and innovating new technologies,” she said. “It’s the present for people who are buying and connecting their work and making sure they have an intent to control the value of their work and be the beneficiaries of their labor. It is the present of many artists who understand the technology.”

However, there are concerns that this new technology is unsustainable and not a long-term revenue strategy that artists should count on. Chris Coleman, the director of the Clinic for Open-Source Arts at Denver University, appreciates that NFT markets have made it easier for artists to trade with one another, in terms of buying each other’s work and giving exposure to many who struggled to gain it. “We have a better sense of how we value each piece of art. If I want to buy an artwork from an artist in Nigeria, there is a way that this commodification has allowed for us to have self-judged values. That’s pretty revolutionary,” he said. However, as a researcher in emerging digital practices, Coleman worries about how sustainable cryptocurrency is as a medium of exchange. He says that online marketplaces for NFTs are vulnerable to market instability. In January 2022, OpenSea recorded $2.3 billion in volume, a monthly record, but the value of the currency fluctuates dramatically and that fluctuation could drop the value of NFT artwork being sold on these platforms. “I think that we are building new communities on something that is just terribly unstable,” Coleman said. His fears seem plausible. The price of ether, the most common form of cryptocurrency used in NFTs, has been volatile over the past few months because of pressure from increasing inflation. Gemini, a leading crypto exchange platform, has speculated that we are in a possible “crypto winter,” where crypto prices tank for a long time.

Despite these apprehensions, it doesn’t seem like the tide of NFT art in Africa is slowing down any time soon. In Sierra Leone, photographers Ibraheem Bangura and Abdul Hamid Kanu organized an NFT conference in February bringing together over 35 painters, photographers, technology startups and illustrators to discuss the potential benefits of blockchain technology and how they could join NFT platforms to sell art. “Interest is high, and we will continue to build the community and share resources around the technology,” said Bangura, a 28-year-old Sierra Leonean-American poet and photographer who thinks it is possible to merge the physical and the digital and create multimedia pieces of art. “This conference is about bridging art and technology and making sure that the knowledge is available to people, and we’ll see where it goes from there.” At the NFT.NYC festival in June, Bangura’s photography was displayed at Times Square, alongside a painting from veteran Sierra Leonean artist Hawa Jane Bangura, who is also exploring the NFT market to sell some of her artwork.

The experience of Awelewa certainly underlines that trend. His parents had hoped his training as a biochemist in Nigeria would pave the way to a successful and well-paid career. But his success with NFTs has opened his parents’ eyes, and they now accept his ambition with both wariness and admiration. That’s not to say they were overwhelmingly supportive at first. When he sold his first print on OpenSea, he said, his parents requested caution. His father, a business owner, told him, “Please don’t waste your first-class degree.” And while his mother was excited for him, she still encouraged him to focus on seeking scholarships for a master’s or doctorate program. They didn’t want his art to be a distraction from their dream of him obtaining a doctorate degree in biochemistry or cancer biology.

Awelewa understands their hesitation, but he thinks he can handle both. In May, he launched a new photography collection on Foundation while he works as a research assistant in the department of biochemistry and forensic science at the Nigerian Police Academy. For him, this not only expands access of his art to a wider audience but also proves he can use his photography to speak in another language and merge his passion for arts and science.

“As long as you are making an effort,” he said, “you will have a reward some day.” He is grateful for the NFTs, he adds, at least for now.

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