African Artists Join The NFT Gold Rush

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African Artists Join The NFT Gold Rush
African Artists Join The NFT Gold Rush

When 30 year-old artist Osinachi was growing up in Aba, a city in southeast Nigeria, he was obsessed with screens. His father was an early internet adopter and took his son to cyber cafes, and evenings were spent playing video games on his Sega Megadrive before he discovered how to make digital art on Microsoft Word 15 years ago. 

In 2017 Osinachi was working as an academic librarian at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, when a Google alert informed him about the crypto art scene – a category of art related to the Ethereum blockchain – where non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are used as a type of digital asset to record the unique ownership of property such as images, videos, music and other collectibles.

Non-fungible items can include paintings, song files or even tweets – like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first ever message. These things are not interchangeable with other items because they have unique properties and no two units are the same. The growing popularity of NFTs has puzzled many, but it has opened the door for artists and creators from Africa to sell their content to a global audience.

In March, Osinachi sold art for $75,000 worth of NFTs in 10 days, before selling Becoming Sochukwuma – a painting showing a black dancer wrapped in a tutu swirling on a computer screen – for $80,000 on the crypto-art market in April.

“Digital art has a place on the same shelf as traditional art,” Osinachi told African Business. “Collectors are making huge returns on investments. [Traders are] buying digital pieces for $1,000 and selling for $20,000 within a short period of time, so I would say that purchasing with NFTs is just like buying traditional pieces – it’s just that how you store and display it is different.”

NFT collectors can flaunt their digital collections at online NFT marketplaces like SuperRare or Showtime, which allows viewers to like or comment on individual pieces. Collectors are displaying their digital artwork files – jpegs, gifs, MP4s or 3D digital models – in virtual reality platforms online or at home on HD screens uniquely designed to showcase digital art.

Art galleries, auction houses and art exhibitions are following suit. In November, at the sixth edition of Art X Lagos – West Africa’s biggest art fair – digital art was auctioned online in partnership with SuperRare, while art lovers visited around 30 physical galleries on show from Africa and the diaspora.

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“Each piece in the NFT exhibition sold for not less than one Ether, which was around $4,500 or $4,600,” says Osinachi, who curated the show.

The value of an NFT can be set by the artist or bid for at auction. NFTs can be bought or sold using virtual wallets that exchange the cryptocurrency Ether, which can be exchanged for fiat currencies like the US dollar and withdrawn as cash.

“It hasn’t been a walk in the park,” says Tokini Peterside, Art X Lagos’ founder. “Any time there is a significant change in any sector, there is always some pushback and we know that some collectors worry NFTs will have a negative impact on their traditional collections.

“For this reason we included within our Art X Talks programme a special conversation on NFTs, to help demystify NFTs, and reframe the debate around meaning, intention and the creative drive that lies at the core of this revolution.”