Last November, Art X Lagos, West Africa’s largest art fair, partnered with leading NFT platform SuperRare to host Charging…, one of the first NFT exhibitions for African artists. Featuring performers from Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa, Senegal and beyond, the show has been described by players in the West African scene as a milestone bringing international attention to what do African digital artists.
The show “brings so much freedom and independence to artists, and really opens up their options,” said Tokini Peterside, founder of Art X Lagos. Reuters at the time.
Meanwhile, in March, the Lagos Center for Contemporary Art hosted an introductory digital workshop on NFTs, facilitated by Tomiwa Lasebikan, co-founder of Buy coins from Africa. A month later, the African Digital Art Network launched the Nandi NFT Marketplace to, as co-founder Chinedu Enekwe Decipher, put it, “build an ecosystem” that can “help brands and creators get paid.”
The buzz around Charging… and these other initiatives reflect the fact that cryptocurrencies and digital art already have a major presence in Nigeria and across Africa. And it’s only getting bigger.
Between July 2020 and June 2021, Africa saw $105.6 billion cryptocurrency payments, an increase of around 1200% over the previous year, according to a March report by the Chainalysis blockchain data platform. Meanwhile, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa were all ranked in the top ten countries for crypto usage.
But despite this seemingly wide adoption of cryptography, 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 restrictions, more than a dozen African countries still have complete bans – including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.
The bans have crippled digital art ecosystems in these countries. While more tech-savvy Nigerians were able to circumvent the ban, Victor Ekwealor, a Nigerian tech journalist told me, it kept most from investing in crypto art in the months that followed.
“A lot of African artists sell to me directly because there aren’t 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 Lagosobserves, “The rate of patronage of NFTs by African artists is relatively low compared to the patronage of works by artists from elsewhere.
This problem arises because most of the digital art collectors of African artists are Africans. And Africa simply does not have enough wealthy investors to raise NFTs at competitive international prices that could support the wider ecosystem. A more global acceptance and patronage of the works of these artists by international collectors would lead to greater growth of digital art on the continent.
Another obstacle to the ecosystem is the weak economies of African countries. Minting an NFT can cost anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred, depending on gas fees — fluctuating processing fees for crypto transactions — and the platform the digital work is minted on. However, even just initializing your account will cost around $60-70 on most platforms, depending on The edge. In countries like Nigeria or Kenya, where the minimum wage is around $100 to $130 a month, many artists struggle to earn enough to hit their works.
Artists like Osinachi, Young Kev, Kevin Kamau and others agree that providing artists with funds to hit 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 area of blockchain assets expansive and inclusive.
But while artists have supported each other, the NFT sector in Africa needs infrastructure comparable to the traditional art world. In this self-sustaining ecosystem, artists create works, gallery owners and art dealers market and promote them, and collectors buy them. Meanwhile, arts institutions exist to nurture, develop, and sustain artists as well as to facilitate the growth and promotion of art. Introducing this high level of organization and functioning in the digital art space would help bring in more interested people, as well as experienced players, to develop and promote digital art across Africa.
To this end, Charles Mbata, digital art collector and curator, and Chuma Anagbado, artist and entrepreneur, are bringing together artists, enthusiasts and cultural figures to create a crypto art community in Nigeria.
One of their initiatives is the Nigeria NFT Community, which organizes programs and fosters collaborations among space artists to gain recognition from a wider and more global audience. Through a collection like Lagos monkey, the community aimed to shine a light on African artists creating NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. They also organized 3rd Dimension, a virtual reality exhibition for Nigerian digital creators. A similar upcoming exhibition is Metanoia, which will be held in New York, Nairobi and Lagos. Other communities like Africa NFT Community, Black NFT Art, and Network of African NFT artists have fulfilled similar roles, helping artists generate more sales, exposure, and critical engagement. These communities have also facilitated training and dissemination of information to artists and other creatives interested in NFTs.
People have often talked about how the NFT craze is driven by money and not quality of art. There is some validity to this opinion. It is undeniable that Beeple’s $69.3 Million NFT Sale at Christie’s and Osinachi’s NFT reaching prizes of $80,000 created investment interest for collectors and hope for 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 artistic director Fahtuwani Mukheli believes NFTs are leveling the international playing field and giving African artists access to audiences they might otherwise not have had access to. In a interview with TRT Worldhe said that NFTs “make us [African artists] Completely compete with everyone at the same time in the world.
This expanded access and reach has convinced many African artists and professionals in the art world that it is therefore important to pay attention to the types of art they release to the world – art that engages seriously in African reality and identity.
The digital art ecosystem in Africa can still experience greater growth if more is done to overcome the challenges it currently faces.
While there are no immediate solutions to difficult household economies or unfavorable cryptographic laws, we can provide education to expand understanding of the space, develop infrastructure to onboard and diversify collectors, and provide artists training in how to position their work for the ever-changing market, while enhancing their artistic vision.