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September 13, 2023

Empire State of Crypto Art

As a new show opens in New York, a group of African artists discusses the power of an NFT gallery
Credit: arclight, Guarding the Gun man 1, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery
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Empire State of Crypto Art

In the early days of Right Click Save, we asked one of Nigeria’s leading artists, Osinachi: “have NFTs lost their way?” As a figurehead of the crypto art movement, in his view it was vital to hold on to a vision of the NFT space that celebrated artists historically ignored by the art world. 18 months on, a new show of works by African artists calls into question whether NFTs can still unlock careers for those without access to the contemporary art world. 

One of the problems faced by the movement for radical inclusivity has always been whether it is possible to distinguish quality on the open sea of NFTs. By establishing a physical space for crypto art’s display in New York, The NFT Gallery is an intriguing attempt to curate work that has historically resisted curation by all forms of mediator. The following conversation between the curator of “How High the Moon,” Jessica Deutsch, and a group of participating artists celebrates that paradox.

AFROSCOPE, Asantewaa Tumi, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

Jessica Deutsch: The mainstream art market has often shown an interest in African art. What makes the NFT space different, in principle, is that artists stand to benefit personally from their own creations by controlling their works’ circulation. How did you get into NFTs and what has been their impact on your career so far?

AFROSCOPE: A mix of curiosity and good fortune led me to NFTs. I was invited to Clubhouse in late 2020 and I kept coming across different rooms where NFTs were being discussed. The more I discovered, the more I felt the urge to dive in fully. I started experimenting and spreading the word to folks in my various communities. Since then, NFTs have had a significant impact on my career, pushing me to better articulate what my work is about, build new connections with other creative professionals, and participate in exhibitions all over the world, as well as councils, DAOs, and even a crypto art residency. These are all things that would probably have never happened had I not dipped my toe into NFTs.

Anthony Azekwoh: I entered the space in late 2020 just as I was discovering crypto. That was huge because, as an African, you’re automatically disadvantaged financially by your geography. Services like Paypal, Stripe, etc. don’t work, so the ability to plug into a global market changed everything for me and it’s been a crazy ride since then. 

Delphine Diallo: It certainly had a significant impact on my life. I wasn’t particularly fortunate, but [my] location played a crucial role. I’m based in New York, and when it comes to finance and the art world, especially in terms of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, New York is the epicenter. My friends started talking to me about NFTs and the crypto scene around 2020, and I had a collector friend who is a financial advisor for major companies. He was the first to approach me about this market, but initially I wasn’t very interested. It felt like a whole new world, and I didn’t want to dive in without understanding it fully. 

By July 2021, I was collaborating with a platform called Quantum NFT, selling out my NFTs with each [priced] at 0.5 ETH, which was equivalent to around $2,000 at the time. That experience was life-changing, providing me with the financial stability to shape the life I desired. 

It meant traveling more frequently to London, Paris, and New York to expand my network. In the art world, physical presence is crucial. People need to know you, your intentions, and your story. While social media can connect you with certain collectors, it has its limits. After twelve years of dedication, I was serious about expanding my practice and making a lasting impact.

Delphine Diallo, Activation, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

Fanuel Leul: NFTs are one of the most impactful developments for artists in recent years, giving creators both control and ownership over their work while allowing them to engage directly with collectors in order to build their careers. Initially, I was drawn to the NFT space out of curiosity, minting some earlier artworks on OpenSea as an experiment. Gradually, I gained traction and grew familiar with the space and its key figures. That validation was motivating, and prompted me to further explore NFT art.

In 2021, I released my major project, Afromask, comprising 101 reimagined digital African masks. When all the pieces sold out within two hours, that convinced me to commit to life as an NFT artist. I began minting more work, engaging actively in the community, while also quitting my day job to co-found a digital art studio. My experience shows that NFTs provide unmatched opportunities for artists to control their work and careers. Though challenging to learn initially, NFTs have enabled me to transition successfully into life as a full-time artist.

Nygilia: I got into NFTs during the lockdown of early 2021 having worked from home for my first industry job since the previous summer, watching how the world was changing. Ironically, it occurred after the rush of riots and racism in America — companies were panicked about their diversity quotas. After a while, I realized that I still wanted to be an artist for myself. Even though I was achieving my dream of getting that “big role,” it made me see how much I had to sacrifice to earn an income. 

I wanted to tell my story the way I envisioned it, not because of how America wanted me to tell my story. I am more than just a Black woman. NFTs changed my life — they gave me a voice and I feel like I finally have creative control for the first time. Yes, there are still many challenges, but I don’t regret taking the journey.  
Nygilia, The Chains Are Still Here, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

JD: Some of the artists participating in “How High the Moon” are setting up studios and merchandising their digital images to create prints, posters, T-shirts, and multiples in sculpture. Others are building their own platforms and expanding into film, gaming, and other media. What approach have you chosen to adopt? Have you encountered any problems shouldering responsibilities that might once have been borne by galleries?

AA: With my background as an author, entering visual art [has required me] to be flexible in how I approach my work. Doing things ourselves, functioning as our own galleries, and liaising with other spaces to put on shows and activations has been great.

DD: I envision a future where artists can incorporate automation into their lives just like any other profession. AI’s potential for copyright protection and uniqueness allows me to lower my prices from $2,500 to $500 per print, [or] even less for posters or T-shirts. That makes [my work] more accessible. However, I’m currently less interested in merchandise because it distracts me from my creative work. My focus is on producing innovative and physical pieces, such as collages, which can command higher prices.

I recognize the transformative potential of the metaverse, which will allow us to create alternate versions of ourselves, but it also requires data protection and a metaverse passport, possibly with an annual fee. Private data will benefit artists [by allowing them to] monetize their content. The shift toward sustainable business models, like paid subscriptions for platforms, is essential to supporting artists who create meaningful content.

Fanuel Luel, Cosmic Shears, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

FL: The NFT space has given creators unprecedented control and ownership over their work. However, it also requires us to self-promote and engage collectors directly without galleries or curators. I have embraced this exciting challenge — learning to promote myself effectively has been a valuable experience. I set up a merchandising shop on my website where people can purchase my NFT art printed onto different materials; I’m also working on a number of new NFT projects including a comic book, titled Bugnad, as well as a game based on my previous Afromask collection. I’m thankful to have built my career organically within the NFT world, which has presented limitless opportunities for creativity and direct fan engagement.

N: I create imaginative and surreal characters who embody posthumanism, video game aspirations, and fantasy worlds. My aim now is to be able to bring one of my characters, Alzena, into the video game world, having previously sold character creations of her on both Ethereum and Tezos. My primary focus is to build more of a physical presence in the art world by having an art page on Instagram and getting her name out there in the non-NFT world, which is still very important and relevant. Outside of Alzena, my personal art is focused on the website that I am currently building.

A: Like many other artists, I’ve been growing my practice beyond producing fine art objects and have explored commercial avenues such as merchandising, offering art and design services, and even studio building. 

I don’t regard the added responsibilities that arise from this expansion as problems — they are upward steps in the evolution of my practice. 

If I need some help at any point, then I seek it out, but I welcome such challenges because they push me out of my comfort zone and lead me toward further growth.

VintageMozart, Embracing The Unhappy Unknown, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

JD: There are many different Web3 communities across Africa. Are you able to share some of the influences on your practice? How would you define your style?

DD: There are a few podcasts [through which] I engage with people from Senegal, which I visit frequently to connect with my community and discuss my work. In New York, people often perceive me as being distant from Africa, as if I represent an ideal future for [the people there]. However, I believe that we are fundamentally the same; I’ve just had greater access and more opportunities. I’m pleased to see that the remarkable work of African artists is gaining recognition. [...] Right now, I’m in the process of connecting with the continent through commissioned work, [which] allows me to spend more time there. With the freedom from financial constraints that I now have, I can dedicate more time to initiating these conversations and fostering a stronger bond with Africa. 

I don’t have a style; I have an essence, and in [that] essence, I’m versatile and ever-evolving. My work reflects that diversity through digital and analog collage, as well as drawing and photography. Although I draw inspiration from classical portrait photography, I’ve built my own unique architecture within it. For instance, I often prefer close-up shots that make a powerful impact, leaving little space around the subject. This close-cropped style is one facet of my essence. My goal is for people to see me as more than someone with a particular style; I’m an ever-changing energy field within the art world.

AA: Afropolitan is a great [community] that allows one to connect with so many Africans from all over. The influence is clear on my work and how I relate to the rest of the world. I am African and I wear that badge with pride.

Anthony Azekwoh, Olókun, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

FL: As an NFT artist, I draw inspiration from a diverse range of African and international creators, working in a multimedia style that combines digital painting and photo manipulation with 3D modeling and traditional African motifs. My work explores Afrofuturism [and studies] how Afrofuturist artists infuse African culture and aesthetics with speculative concepts and sci-fi. I often explore the theme of souvenirs from the future — objects and artifacts that evoke nostalgia for an imagined future homeland. 

Through my NFT works I hope to inspire innovative visions of the future and honor the traditions of the past, contributing a unique perspective on Afrofuturism.

N: Web3 has helped me to better understand [Africa] through the friends that I have made from the continent. My father’s side of the family is from the West Indies, which shares interesting similarities with the cultures there. The stories, people, and use of color have inspired the vibrancy of my art, which combines layers, memories, visual language, and personas into my own vision of fantasy. Like a video game, this is an endless world that embodies elements of African folklore in combination with other ethnic influences. 

A: My style revolves around openness. I open myself up to inspiration from all aspects of life — from mathematics to African history, and neurobiology to streetwear. As a consequence, my work tends to be very expansive and experimental. However, given my lived experience in Ghana and my gradual disillusionment with the colonially programmed norms I grew up surrounded by, a lot of my art tends to address this reality. [As a result] my work is often characterized by themes of decolonization, oneness, and spirituality, African philosophy, Afrofuturism, and other subjects that allow me to respond to the societal structures that shape(d) the world I grew up interfacing with daily. 

YoungKev, Harambee (togetherness), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

JD: Collectors of digital art are no longer restricted by old forms of display, while artists are often open to distributing their works via different formats. Do you have any preferences regarding how your work is to be experienced? Do you think it helps for new NFT collectors to be guided, as they are at The NFT Gallery?

FL: The emergence of NFTs has allowed me greater creative freedom in how I present my artworks digitally. No longer restricted to physical mediums, I can leverage animation and other dynamic displays to bring my creations to life. I take advantage of the versatility of NFTs to showcase my art through experimental formats tailored to each piece, including animations and interactive elements. My goal is to transcend static digital images by crafting more immersive and multidimensional experiences between my art and its audience [as] active participants. The possibilities for innovative displays and creative storytelling with NFT art are constantly evolving. 

N: I regard onboarding and honest communication about how art is presented as key to distribution in the NFT world. The fine art world is still very relevant [to that]. The stories you want to tell are determined by the space and audience around them. I love when a curator and artist can discuss what is possible and produce an unforgettable experience.

AA: I personally have no direct preference but I’m very partial to physical presentation because I feel like you can’t really go wrong with the classics. I love the work that The NFT Gallery is doing — onboarding new and old generations of artists and collectors.

Nearbound, Whispers of the Midnight Sun, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

A: Because I enjoy working across both traditional and new media, I don’t have a preference regarding how my work is to be experienced. All media offer something unique and I value the chance to create and have my work experienced across them all. I also love finding ways to blend the digital and the physical seamlessly. That said, I understand how intimidating new and emerging technologies can be for folks who are used to experiencing work in the familiar traditional ways. Even hardcore tech enthusiasts and avid programmers have found it challenging wrapping their heads around NFTs. 

Spaces like The NFT Gallery flatten the learning curve somewhat and make the crypto art world less cryptic and more welcoming. In my opinion, that’s a win for all involved in the space. 

DD: For me, it’s a great idea to combine NFTs with traditional gallery prints because there’s a unique depth and tactile experience to a physical print that a screen cannot replicate. When you print an image and see its texture, it’s akin to observing a painting. Screens don’t evoke the same sensations because they lack the richness of pigments, colors, tones, reflections, and the spectrum of colors found in traditional art forms, homogenizing everything they display.

I collaborate with woodworkers to create custom frames, ensuring that both my prints and their frames are bespoke. It’s true that this approach may increase the production costs, which has caused some concern among my gallery partners. But I believe it’s worth trying to showcase craft in this exhibition. If it doesn’t yield the desired results, we can always return to our previous commercial approach. However, I’m confident that the difference in quality will be apparent.

Justin Dingwall, Into the ring I, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

JD: This exhibition spotlights a number of female artists of color who have emerged as leading figures in the NFT space in recent years. Can new technologies help to confront historic biases that have characterized the legacy art world? How optimistic are you about Web3?

N: Yes, I love where technology is going. Something great — that has movement — will always come with a fight.

Any form of tech comes with bias, prejudice, and issues. For me, the more Black creatives push tech, the more representation is widened. 

However, I always believe in going back to basics. I love drawing, sketching, and painting, so when I have been creating with technologies for too long, I go back to making art by hand. This brings balance to my reality. 

A: One of the things that initially got me really excited about NFTs, Web3, and the blockchain space in general, was the sense that they would afford us a “fresh start” with regard to systems building, the distribution of power, and the democratization of control. As someone interested in decolonization and the reversal of biased and unjust systems of control, this emerging space felt like the perfect chance to create a blueprint for a new and more equitable future. Some of these biases have been confronted. When I think of all the NFT-related organizations and opportunities I’ve been involved with, from Cyber Baat to VerticalCrypto Art, to Artano — most of the leading voices have been female. This is inspiring and one of the signs of change toward a more just and level playing field. 

However, for the most part it seems like the good old systems of power are being replicated in Web3. The space has not been able to live up to the promise of even power and wealth distribution for all participants. Meaningful artworks and projects by artists of color don’t seem to receive the same attention and spotlight as other projects. The space had the opportunity to become one that intentionally prioritized and championed diversity and the underrepresented, but it missed the opportunity. The result is that, once again, we have a situation where people of color have to fight extremely hard to be heard and seen. I remain open and optimistic, so I choose not to give up hope just yet. But honestly it’s not easy.

Lana Denina, I Feel Safe With You, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

AA: New technologies help to eradicate a lot of the barriers that once existed and it is [currently happening] for Africans. It’s also being done for women all over the world. More female artists are being brought into the limelight as the barriers to entry are reduced and it’s slowly but surely becoming a fairer playing field. Based on what I’ve seen already, I’m very optimistic about the future of Web3 as a whole. 

DD: From my perspective, Web3 has its limitations because many people struggle to grasp its utility. It revolves around data protection, but it’s one of the first platforms that you have to pay to enter. I find it somewhat unwelcoming and lacking in the collaboration and sharing that people often associate with it. I personally don’t feel drawn to OpenSea, which feels somewhat alienating, [and] I believe that there are more user-friendly approaches [that can] make Web3 more accessible. Personal data protection is a priority but, currently, the process involves too many tools to ensure security. It’s more complex than playing a video game, which makes it less appealing. The emotional toll of crypto’s price fluctuations can [also] be challenging, especially for those unfamiliar with the nuances of the market. 

Artists face the additional burden of wearing multiple hats — from creator to graphic designer to financial advisor. That added complexity isn’t conducive to artistic creativity. It’s crucial to strike a balance and ensure that artists can thrive without being overwhelmed by administrative and financial tasks.
Lethabo Huma, Late Bloomer, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and The NFT Gallery

FL: The emergence of NFTs has provided opportunities for artists to build recognition outside of traditional art world gatekeepers like galleries and curators. Many talented artists who have not gained exposure through physical exhibitions can now use NFTs to share their work directly with potential collectors. This allows them to build their reputation and collector base digitally. 

While the NFT art scene has now calmed down from its apex, it remains an evolving movement full of potential to disrupt and democratize the art world. I believe that Web3 is a key to the future of the arts, providing opportunities for undiscovered and marginalized artists through its transparency, accessibility, and decentralization. This technology will only continue maturing.

Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

With thanks to Lynn Rosenberger and Alexandra Livadaru.

AFROSCOPE (Isaac Nana Opoku) is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, and social entrepreneur. In his work, he explores a range of themes including decolonization, oneness, information overload, and deep adaptation, engaging with these topics in experimental and speculative ways through both digital and analog media. Community is also core to AFROSCOPE’s practice, which involves working closely with indigenous artisans across Ghana. He has also worked with brands like Apple and Adobe, and has co-founded impact organizations including House of Stole and Cocoa360. AFROSCOPE represented Ghana at the 2022 Venice Biennale and has exhibited globally, including Museum Ostwall, Dortmund; Art Dubai; and the Digital Art Fair, Hong Kong. 

Anthony Azekwoh is a contemporary artist and author based in Lagos, Nigeria. His work focuses primarily on African folklore and mythology, using these themes and figures to tell stories of his country, transformation, and change. Anthony is familiar with change, dropping out of school to pursue his art career. Replicating traditional techniques through digital media, he regards technology as an instrumental part of his practice and a catalyst for Africans to find their creative voices and pursue careers in the arts. He is currently exploring the medium of sculpture, representing historical figures and facets of Nigerian culture to showcase his home as seen through his own eyes. In addition to exhibiting his work globally, he has published five books along with hundreds of stories and essays, and is a recipient of the Awele Trust Prize and the Loose Convo grant. With the proceeds of his work, he set up the Rosemary Fund, a grant for emerging artists in Nigeria.

Delphine Diallo is a Brooklyn-based French and Senegalese visual artist and photographer. Born into a French-Senegalese creative family, Diallo’s first expressions of artistry were in music, graphic design, and artistic direction. An observer of photography’s traditional gaze on women’s bodies, Diallo made it her mission to become a key actor in the deconstruction of its sexist and racist legacy. Since 2014, Diallo has been creating a visual language that would empower herself and the women who would become her protagonists and heroines. Recently, she has been exploring the power and potential of self-portraiture, turning mental pictures — or lucid dreams — into carefully crafted mises-en-scène. Working mainly in digital and analogue photography, Diallo explores the expansion of her tools via AI, drawing, and found imagery. 

Fanuel Leul is a digital artist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, whose work blends tradition with futuristic technologies to create contrasting and harmonious compositions. Influenced by Afrofuturism, he aims to portray Africa in a way that breaks free from common stereotypes and celebrates its vibrant spirit. With a BA in Industrial Design and Fine Art from the Ale School of Fine Arts, he attributes much of his artistic growth to being a self-taught creator. His passion lies in rekindling the creative spirit of his fellow African artists, aiming to empower and inspire a new generation of African storytellers.

Nygilia is a multidisciplinary artist from New York whose work draws inspiration from fantasy, gaming, and Afro-Caribbean worlds. Through virtual reality and digital painting the artist explores imaginative and surreal realms, cultures, and lifestyles, creating innovative mixed media pieces comprising unique character creations. Nygilia’s art has exhibited globally and is renowned for inviting viewers to experience rich and diverse cultures through the lens of abstraction.

Jessica Deutsch is an international curator, dealer, and art historian.