While acquiring and trading cryptocurrencies remains a challenge in most African countries, NFTs are still one of the best options for digital artists from Africa to earn income for their work. The relative absence of middlemen on the blockchain also signifies that, for the first time, consumers of art are exposed to the largest un-curated collection of artists from Africa.
African artists come to web3 for the ability to create their own market, they stay because it allows them to redefine what agency means to them in the art world.
Africa’s art market, though growing, is still a blip in the global art market. Africa, combined with South America, made up less than 4% of global art sales as of 2018. African artists often headline major art fairs and auctions but the reality is that earning sustainable income as an artist from Africa is as far as you can get from the norm.
These figures are much worse for digital artists. Besides the fact that digital art mediums have been contested as legitimate art for years, it’s nearly impossible to find a single renowned African digital artist prior to the web3 revolution. That is not to say that African digital artists did not exist. They just made art for the sake of it, and without hopes of any material return.
It’s no wonder that many digital artists from Africa were drawn to the blockchain when NFTs came along. For the first time, it was possible for anyone to tokenize their work, build a market around it, and retain agency over future earnings. Some of the earliest African artists on the blockchain were Osinachi, Ahmed Partey, and Owo (creator of AfroDroids) for instance. They became examples of how much resonance African digital artists could achieve through NFTs. They built communities around their work, were featured in some of the most prestigious platforms and auction houses, and more importantly, they were able to sustainably live off their work. They did all this without having to live abroad or rely on institutions outside of the continent for representation. This phenomenon was completely unheard of.
Today, hundreds of African artists are following in their footsteps, often with the pioneering artists’ guidance as they are still active members of the community. For African digital artists, the promise of web3 is concretely being able to, for the first time at scale, earn income for their work.
Art criticism (the appraisal, discussion, and evaluation of art) obtained its modern form in the 18th century. It’s one of the late legacies of the Age of Enlightenment, which is also the epoch that produced colonialism. We will come back to art criticism in a little bit - let’s first explore why decolonization even matters at all.
One of the philosophical canons of the Age of Enlightenment was the idea that there was a universality to reason, beauty, and virtue. It was through the lens of Enlightenment that colonization was justified: Western nations were, by their own evaluation, culturally/morally/aesthetically superior to non-Western nations. Western became synonymous with civilized while non-Western was relegated to the realms of barbarism, savagery, primitivism, and the name calling goes on.
These ideas were so powerful that they justified hundreds of years of violence and brutality in the pursuit of a uniformly modern world. Everyone was to become more ‘Western’ and abandon their savage ways. A lot of time has passed since the 18th century but colonialism - a project that started during that time - only ended a little over 70 years ago. Most of our grandparents spent their adolescence under colonial rule, which means that its legacies are still very much present in our psyches and without a doubt, in most of the systems that govern us.
Therefore, the urgency to decolonize comes from the desire to untangle our psyches from colonial thinking and rebuild the systems that govern us outside of its canons. In the art world, it means reimagining art criticism to accommodate the plurality of beauty as conceptualized by various communities around the world. It also means building new art institutions to host this plurality and facilitate new and ancient ways of experiencing art.
Web3 has the potential to help us achieve these two goals. Decentralization, which is foundational to web3, is also one of the key elements of decolonization. There is of course far more work to be done to lower the barriers to entry into the blockchain as most cryptocurrencies used to trade art are wildly inaccessible to most people on the continent. Still, we can already catch glimpses of the aesthetic diversity coming out of Africa. There are fewer Western gatekeepers on the blockchain deciding which artists from Africa get to participate in the global art market.
Some of the most visible works of art of our generation are by African and African American artists. The demand for black art is undeniably on the rise. Yet, black artists in the traditional art market still feel the toll of a system not designed to see them succeed. They are burning out: getting involved in how their work is translated in order to be properly represented, writing their own press releases, participating in more programming than their white counterparts in order to be visible. They are profiting from their practice in the long term while the traditional art market still debates whether they deserve royalty when buyers profit from the resale of their work.
One of the most attractive features of NFTs is the ability for artists to retain ownership over their work and continue to profit from secondary sales through the smart contract. They can decide how, where, and to whom their work is sold. They can also provide proof of provenance to their collectors. All of this is possible from the comfort of their own home and without relying on middlemen.
Much of the pressure artists from Africa and black artists in general face in the traditional art world is lifted in web3. They decide what work they share and how people should experience it. They can also retain the bulk of their earnings in perpetuity. Lastly, they get to choose how and how much they socialize with art institutions and collectors.
African artists in the crypto art world are aware of the environmental cost of the blockchain. Some are starting to turn to greener alternatives, such as Tezos or Cardano. For example, it’s common to see an artist selling a greater volume on a Tezos marketplace and use an Ethereum for more prized pieces.
However, it’s important to contextualize the dilemma African artists face while weighing their environmental footprint against their participation in the blockchain. They are choosing the only available avenue to support themselves and their families doing what they love, while bearing the guilt of their carbon footprint.
The only other choice would be to not earn income from their art. Avenues to break into the traditional art world are few and far between, especially for people who may not have received fine arts training at a reputable institution, do not have relatives of connections to the art world, and aren’t living in a Western country.
It is possible now, thanks to the blockchain, to envision a future for African digital art. Soon, African art institutions will also be interested in the possibilities of digital art as enabled by the blockchain; especially as more African digital artists break through the international art scene through NFTs. Collectives such as Cyber Baat and organizations such as the Africannftcommunity and Black NFT Art are actively engaged in ensuring that newcomers to the blockchain have a soft landing and a glimpse of what’s possible in the space for digital artists from Africa.