Last November, Art X Lagos, West Africa’s biggest art fair, partnered with leading NFT platform SuperRare to host Reloading…, one of the first NFT exhibitions for African artists. Featuring artists from Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa, Senegal, and elsewhere, the show has been described by those in West Africa’s scene as a major milestone drawing international attention to what African digital artists are doing.
The show “brings so much liberty and independence to the artists, and really just opens up their options,” Tokini Peterside, founder of Art X Lagos, told Reuters at the time.
Meanwhile, in March, the Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos held an introductory digital workshop on NFTs, moderated by Tomiwa Lasebikan, cofounder of Buycoins Africa. A month later, the African Digital Art Network launched the NFT marketplace Nandi, as cofounder Chinedu Enekwe told Decrypt, “build an ecosystem” that can “help brands and creators to get paid.”
The buzz around Reloading … and these other initiatives is reflective of the fact that cryptocurrencies and digital art already have a major presence in Nigeria and across Africa. And it is only getting bigger.
Between July 2020 and June 2021, Africa saw $105.6 billion in cryptocurrency payments, a roughly 1,200 percent increase over the previous year, according to a March report by blockchain data platform Chainalysis. Meanwhile, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa were all ranked in the top ten countries for crypto use.
But despite this seemingly wide crypto adoption, African digital art still has challenges to overcome.
Early last year, the Nigerian government banned banks and financial institutions from using cryptocurrencies, causing many Nigerians to empty their crypto wallets in a wave of panic. While Nigeria announced new rules earlier this month to ease the restrictions, more than a dozen African countries still have full bans–including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia.
The bans have handicapped the digital art ecosystems in those countries. While more tech-savvy Nigerians were able to get around the ban, Victor Ekwealor, a Nigerian tech journalist, told me, it prevented most from investing in crypto art in the months after.
“Many African artists market to me directly because there are not enough collectors to buy their art,” Daliso Ngoma, a South African NFT collector and founder of African Technopreneurs, told me.
Similarly, Rodney Asikhia, the owner of Tribes Art Africa, a contemporary art gallery in Lagos, observed,“the rate of patronage of NFTs by African artists is relatively low when compared to the patronage of works by artists from elsewhere.”
This problem arises because most collectors of digital art by African artists are Africans. And Africa simply does not have enough high-net-worth investors to collect NFTs at competitive international prices that could sustain the larger ecosystem. More global acceptance and patronage of the works of these artists by international collectors would lead to the greater growth of digital art on the continent.
Another obstacle to the ecosystem is the weak economies of African countries. Minting an NFT could cost anywhere from a few dollars up to several hundred, depending on gas fees–the fluctuating processing fee for crypto transactions–and the platform on which the digital work is minted. However, even just initializing your account will cost approximately $60–70 on most platforms, according to The Verge. In countries such as Nigeria or Kenya, where the minimum wage is approximately $100–$130 per month, many artists struggle to earn enough to mint their works.
Artists like Osinachi, Young Kev, Kevin Kamau, and others agree that providing artists funds to mint their first NFTs would boost participation in the crypto space. Some artists have even taken it upon themselves to do so on an informal person-to-person basis, playing their part in making this field of blockchain assets expansive and inclusive.
But while artists have provided support to each other, Africa’s NFT sector needs infrastructure comparable to that in the traditional art world. In that self-sustaining ecosystem, artists make work, gallerists and art dealers market and promote it, and collectors buy it. Meanwhile, art institutions exist to support, develop, and sustain artists as well as facilitate the growth and promotion of art. Introducing this high level of organization and function to the digital art space would help onboard more interested people, along with the experienced players, to grow and promote digital art across Africa.
Toward this end, Charles Mbata, a digital art collector and curator, and Chuma Anagbado, an artist and entrepreneur, are bringing together artists, enthusiasts, and cultural figures to build a crypto art community in Nigeria.
One of their initiatives is the Nigeria NFT Community, which organizes programs and fosters collaboration between artists in the space to get recognition by a wider, more global audience. Through a collection like Ape of Lagos, the community aimed to spotlight African artists creating NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. They also organized 3rd Dimension, a virtual reality exhibition for Nigerian digital creators. A similar forthcoming exhibition is Metanoia, to be held in New York, Nairobi, and Lagos. Other communities like Africa NFT Community, Black NFT Art, and Network of African NFT artists have filled similar roles, helping artists garner sales, exhibitions, and critical engagement. These communities have also facilitated training and information dissemination to artists and other creatives interested in NFTs.
People have often talked about how the NFT craze is driven by money and not the quality of the art. There is some validity to that. It is undeniable that Beeple’s $69.3 million NFT sale at Christie’s and Osinachi’s NFTs achieving prices of $80,000 have created investment interest for collectors and hopes of a gold rush for artists.
But there are African creatives who are interested in doing serious work with NFTs. Nigerian graphic designer Mayowa Alabi, also known as Shutabug, said in an interview earlier this year that he wants his digital art to tell a larger story. Johannesburg-based art director Fhatuwani Mukheli believes NFTs level the international playing field and give African artists access to audiences otherwise inaccessible. In an interview with TRT World, he said that NFTs “make us [African artists] compete completely with everyone at the same time in the world.”
This expanded reach has convinced many African artists and art world professionals that it is therefore important to pay attention to the kinds of art they put out in the world–art that seriously engages with African reality and identity.
The digital art ecosystem in Africa can experience yet more growth with greater effort to overcome the challenges it faces.
While there may not be immediate solutions to difficult home economies or unfavorable crypto laws, we can provide education to expand understanding of the space, develop infrastructure to cultivate and diversify collectors, and provide artists training in how to position their work for the ever-evolving market, while improving their artistic vision.