DIGITAL ART

Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space

Despite the space being in its early days with several challenges including a crypto ban and a small collector base, there are signs of promise.
Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Freddie Jacob
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Most people became aware of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) last year when Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5,000 Days sold for $69.3 million sale at Christie’s in New York. Though blockchain technology and web3 were becoming better known, for most, it was still unclear what impact NFTs would have on the global art scene.

This was the case too in Nigeria where most people’s knowledge of NFTs had come from Prince Jacon Osinachi—regarded as the first artist who popularized crypto art or art on the blockchain in Nigeria.

In 2018, he joined Rare Art Lab, a platform that educated him on how to navigate art on the blockchain and with that he began to use Microsoft word as his medium. His story has gone on to inspire several Nigerian artists and he is the first African to be featured at the Christie’s NFT auction. In March 2021, he sold art worth $75,000 in ten days followed by selling his piece, Becoming Sochukwuma for $80,000 on SuperRare. His success has built visibility for the Nigerian NFT scene.

The NFT scene in Nigeria is the largest in Africa’s art on the blockchain ecosystem due to the magnitude of its creator base. Though it is still in its infancy stages it has amassed a lot of success within a short span; with major players like Anthony Azekwoh and Prince Jacon Osinachi making huge sales of 5.5ETH or $25.4k and 22ETH or $83.2k respectively for their The Red Man and The Future is Female arts on SuperRare.

But the scene’s exceptional talent is what keeps it afloat, with several artists experimenting on different art disciplines and forms of arts including abstract figurations, sculpture, photography, and others.

Despite the space being in its early days with several challenges including a crypto ban and a small collector base, there are signs of promise.

Navigating the Nigerian NFT scene

“I’ve always wanted to be an artist but there wasn’t a way for me to make a living out of it considering how saturated the traditional art market is,” says Adewale Mayowa, a Nigerian artist. “So when I discovered NFT, it felt like the perfect place for me to begin my creative journey.”

Mayowa is one of the digital artists making waves in the NFT space in Nigeria. Prior to becoming a digital artist, Mayowa was in the medical field, but found it too demanding and was not sure how long it would take him to get a good job position. Learning about NFTs was much simpler for him with him only needing to read articles and watch YouTube tutorials to grasp the workings of the tech system.

Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Adewale Mayowa
Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Adewale Mayowa

“I wanted to escape from reality but at the same time create my own reality to express my creative urge [through surreal portraits]” Mayowa tells Quartz. But despite Mayowa’s success, being an NFT creator has not been an easy road.

“When I started NFT, it was hard for me because it felt like I wasn’t seen despite how unique my work is. What I didn’t realize is that it wouldn’t be an overnight success.”

Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Adewale Mayowa

But Mayowa’s story is very common in the Nigerian NFT scene. For new artists, navigating the blockchain space is very difficult, especially when trying to make sales—which plays heavily on the lack of a massive collector base in the country. NFT creators have to rely on international collectors to get their work sold and have to work hard to garner attention.

Nigeria’s cryptocurrency ban

The lack of a strong collector base in Nigeria is partly as a result on the Nigerian cryptocurrency ban, given that NFTs are mostly bought using cryptocurrencies.

On Feb. 5, 2021, the central bank of Nigeria (CBN) issued a press release restricting financial institutions around the country from transacting in cryptocurrencies. Though there might be a loophole to this through peer to peer (P2P) trades, it could explain the low NFT collector base in Nigeria. According to research by finder.com, only 13.7% of Nigerians own NFT assets.

Another artist, Freddie Jacob, likes the independence the NFT space affords her. She doesn’t want to pigeonhole herself and refers to herself as  “an artist who happens to also sell NFTs” rather than an NFT artist. “I make art that is often inspired by stories I have experienced in society through an identity lens, culture, mental health, and portrayal of strong characters.”

Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Freddie Jacob

She’s one of the women in the Nigerian NFT space who are trying to get more women into the space. Together with King Omobolarinwa, they both host the “Nigeria women in the NFT community” spaces on Twitter.

“Web 3 still has some reflections of the real world, there is still little diversity and inclusion,” she tells Quartz.

Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Freddie Jacob

Jacob’s biggest challenge is the bear markets, “when the crypto market affects the buying and selling of NFTs” which often discourages artists like herself.

She also speaks of the issue of high minting fees which are difficult to pay especially given Nigeria’s current economic hardships.

Nigeria first digital exhibition and digital museum

The non-tangibility of NFTs, doesn’t reduce the possibility of exhibitions. This is thanks to the intersection of art and technology. In November 2021, one of Nigeria’s prominent NFT creators Anthony Azekwoh held his first ever digital exhibition, becoming. The show had more than a thousand viewers and garnered good sales.

The exhibition was organized by Art Tech District, a west African digital art museum. Founded by Mosope Olaosebikan in 2021, Art Tech District was his vision to provide a tourist experience while showing Nigeria’s past, present, and future stories through a technological lens.

Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Photo: Art Tech District

“Traveling around the world and absorbing the sights and sounds, I’d always thought, ‘What if most of the tourist destinations we sought out as Nigerians were within our reach?’” says Olaosebikan. “During the lockdown, I started exploring the creation of experiential spaces, and when the world opened up, I immediately got to work. I wanted Disneyland, Universal Studios, and the Smithsonian all in one place. I am passionate about introducing technology to Nigerians in a fun, immersive, and interactive way.”

Though NFTs weren’t Olaosebikan’s plan, when they went viral, he got curious and realized how innovative it was. Now his mission is to show the enormous talent NFT creators in Nigeria and west Africa possess by bringing the world’s attention to them through exhibitions and shows.

NFT inclusivity in west Africa biggest art fair

Art X Lagos, west Africa’s biggest art fair is also revolutionizing the future of art on the blockchain. In November 2021, during the 6th international exhibition, the fair partnered with SuperRare to organize discussions around the blooming NFT space in Nigeria and Africa at large. The fair held events like NFT talks and also exhibition shows for digital artists within the continent and conducted sales.

Izu Udokwu is a storyteller, fashion designer, and artist who began his pivot to NFTs in February 2021. He had been heavily influenced by his friend Prince Osinachi’s art and he thought to try his luck in the space. He started making NFTs at the intersection of art and fashion.

Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Photo: Izu Udokwu
Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Photo: Izu Udokwu
Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Izu Udokwu
Image for article titled Nigerian artists carve their own path in the NFT space
Image: Izu Udokwu

His only difficulty with the space is trying to bring in more fashion designers who can tell fashion stories through art. “I was the first NFT fashion creator in Africa and probably still the only one in Nigeria,” says Udokwu. “I think trying to bring in more fashion designers in the space is really hard, a lot of designers are really terrified of the space because they are unaware of how to exist in the space and there is a need for the fashion NFT forum to really expand, to go beyond myself because you can’t exist alone.”

But he loves the space and the optimism from people who are keen to educate others about the space.