Art Market

How NFTs Have Empowered Artists in African Art Scenes

Ugonna-Ora Owoh
May 3, 2022 8:46PM

Osinachi, Man in the Window, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Osinachi, Your Turn, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

In late 2017, Nigeria’s foremost digital artist Osinachi started making blockchain-enabled art. “Opportunities weren’t in the traditional art space for digital artists like myself,” Osinachi explained, “because traditional artists didn’t take digital art seriously—until recently, when NFTs started.”

After discovering crypto art on his own, Osinachi joined the now-defunct platform Rare Art Lab. The team there taught him how to mint NFTs (non-fungible tokens), a process he picked up with ease. Osinachi admired the way the crypto art space gave him a sense of belonging as a digital artist, something that the traditional art space lacked.

Yet Osinachi never believed that crypto art would become a phenomenon. “I saw it as something similar to Instagram, only that there is a possibility of making a few cents from it,” he said during a recent Zoom call.

The global rise of NFTs has been massive, but in Africa, the ascent has been meteoric, especially in countries with burgeoning art ecosystems. Like much of the broader art world, NFTs penetrated Africa in early 2021, after Beeple’s $69.3 million sale at Christie’s in New York. In response, artists working in African cities, from established painters to emerging digital artists, gravitated towards NFTs to sell their work, tell new stories, and celebrate African excellence.

Yatreda, King Lalibela: Kingdoms of Ethiopia, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.


A year on, NFTs have opened the door for new artists to earn revenue on marketplaces like Opensea, Foundation, SuperRare, Mintable, Wax, and many others. “Before, artists waited on companies to employ them to produce a particular work,” Osinachi said of the circumstances he and his peers in Nigeria had grown accustomed to. “That has changed now—digital artists are able to make what they want to make and believe someone is willing to buy their works on the blockchain.” Across several African countries’ art scenes, there is already an established digital art community composed of artists, collectors, and enthusiasts—all of whom are propelling the industry’s growth.

In Nigeria, the existing art scene includes a colony of artists that quickly entered the NFT space, led by major players like Anthony Azekwoh, Adewale Mayowa, and Freddie Jacob. There is, however, a major challenge when it comes to earning from NFT sales in Nigeria: The Nigerian government banned cryptocurrency in February 2021, so artists must be careful in the ways they sell their work and engage in transactions, in order to avoid having their bank accounts frozen.

Osinachi is regarded as one of the first digital artists (if not the first) to spark the NFT wave in Nigeria. In 2021, he became the first African NFT artist to be featured at Christie’s in London; and his NFTs have achieved large sums, like Becoming Sochukwuma, which sold for $80,000 on SuperRare. Osinachi has witnessed a surging growth in the Nigerian NFT community, and now several artists have enjoyed significant profits from this work. Azekwoh, for example, sold The Red Man on SuperRare six months ago for 5.5ETH, or $25,419.

Unlike the Nigerian NFT scene, South Africa’s is still finding its footing. However, several artists are leading the way. “The art scene in South Africa is growing; you can feel the unified consciousness of thinking about our stories,” said South African digital artist Terence Ntsako.

Terence Ntsako, NFT from the collection “I and Kinfolk,” 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Terence Ntsako, NFT from the collection “I and Kinfolk,” 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Ntsako started making NFTs in 2021, curious to tap into the new technology. Though he had mostly been painting, creating NFTs didn’t feel like a major leap because he got his start working in animation. “NFTs [offered me] a platform that allowed me to keep track of and stay in charge of my artworks,” Ntsako said.

Ntsako has been witnessing more and more fellow artists becoming interested in NFTs in order to make money. Working at Johannesburg’s communal art studio August House, Ntsako said that his artist peers constantly come to him, asking him about the medium. “I hear someone telling me, ‘Yo! Show me the ropes,’ and we set up a time, sit down, and I send them all the details on how to get involved in NFTs,” he said.

This enthusiasm has been challenging, too. Ntsako’s limited time and resources keep him from being able to help the many fellow artists who are keen to enter the NFT space. On top of that, he has needed to dedicate time to his collectors who were accustomed to buying his paintings, but are skeptical of NFTs. Yet these difficulties pale in comparison to those of his peers who are still up-and-coming in the space. A more pressing issue is the exorbitant gas fees attached to minting NFTs. The steep costs of producing this work threatens artists’ ambitions and creativity, and hampers the extent to which more emerging artists can afford to create NFTs.

Artists aren’t the only ones getting into NFTs—galleries and fairs on the African continent are embarking on new terrain, too. In November 2021, ART X Lagos—West Africa’s first and biggest art fair that brings together thousands of creatives and enthusiasts globally—partnered with NFT marketplace SuperRare to showcase emerging digital artists in Africa. The fair put on an NFT sale featuring works by artists including Osinachi, Niyi Okeowo, Linda Dounia, MoonsunDiamond, and Idris Veitch, among others. There was also a discussion as part of the fair’s talks program, titled “Art X NFTs: Speculative Futures,” featuring Osinachi, Dounia, and Ade Adekola, and moderated by entrepreneur and curator Maurice Chapot.

Yatreda. Courtesy of the artist.

Such conversations have also been happening at Art Tech District, Nigeria’s tech-driven arts hub located in Abuja. The company started delving into NFTs in order to offer an innovative means of empowering young Nigerian creators.

“We embraced NFTs as soon as they emerged,” said Mosope Olaosebikan, founder of Art Tech District. “We were among the first to start having serious conversations about the new technology, hosting a series of NFT panel discussions.”

In contrast to the growing NFT infrastructure in Nigeria, in Ethiopia, the art world is blooming, yet the emergence of NFTs is new. You wouldn’t know that, however, by looking at the work of Kiya Tadele—the Ethiopian model and artist who started the art collective Yatreda with members of her family in 2021. The collective is aimed at using blockchain technology to preserve Ethiopian cultural heritage.

“The NFT space is new for Ethiopia,” Tadele told Artsy. “Though there are some other powerful Ethiopian artists who have entered the space, like our friend Fanuel Leul, we see this as a fair chance for everyone with a curious and open mind.”

In February, Yatreda released an NFT project titled “Strong Hair”—a collection of 100 looping images celebrating traditional hairstyles that have existed in Ethiopia for centuries. In just three months, the collection has amassed a total of 250.65ETH on Foundation.

Young Kev, Mint, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Young Kev, The Oracle, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

But Kiya Tadele isn’t the only East African artist making waves in the NFT space. Young Kev started making NFTs in April 2021, a time when few Kenyan artists were finding their way into the tech space. For Kev, making NFTs meant forming connections and expanding his reach, in addition to selling his work. “NFTs, to me, were a way to reach the whole world,” he said, “creating an international community of people that resonate with my artwork and the freedom to create art freely while getting compensation.”

In Kenya, the NFT community is called Mbogi—named after the Swahili word meaning “crew.” According to Kev, though the community is small, the growth has been enormous as more artists in the community are tasking themselves with bringing others into the fold—educating new artists as well as sharing their experiences with NFTs. He added that artists have also concerned themselves with gathering funds to help new artists cover their minting fees.

“The growing popularity of NFTs has given acceptance to digital art in traditional galleries,” Kev added, noting that he would exhibit his work in The Affordable Art Show in conjunction with the Kenya Museum Society this month at the Nairobi National Museum.

Just like the global art world, these local art scenes in Africa are poised to keep growing, welcoming new artists, and yielding significant sales through blockchain, while also offering new artists greater reach and representation. “We are here to stay, but it still feels like we are just getting started,” Tadele said. “Everything up until this point has been a big experiment. The future looks good.”

Ugonna-Ora Owoh