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January 31, 2022

Have NFTs lost their way?

OSINACHI in conversation with Jason Bailey
Credit: Osinachi, Man in a Pool III, 2021
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Have NFTs lost their way?

Jason Bailey: It’s been a crazy couple of years since we first met, with NFTs taking off during the pandemic. How are you holding up?

Osinachi: Yeah, it’s been really crazy, mostly in a good way as an artist in the space: from January, when I bought my home; to October when I had the auction at Christie’s. But because the whole thing is moving so fast, it takes some effort on my part to try to slow things down. I receive so many email requests for collaboration, most of which I say no to because of course, I have my plans. On the other hand, you can have everything planned out and then it gets disrupted, sometimes in a good way. 

JB: I was revisiting your solo show at Kate Vass Galerie and it struck me that you always manage to tackle the big topics that people are dealing with: Environmentalism, or police brutality, or COVID. But when other people tackle them, it feels almost artificial. Somehow you find a way to express your lived experience without apparent artifice, to address issues that are relevant to all of us. If you told an artist, maybe with less experience, to make a work about COVID, they might produce a work about death: Something huge and heavy. I mean, COVID is horrible. But one of its repercussions has also been emotional loneliness. You manage to address these aspects that are perhaps more subtle yet also universal.

O: The pandemic is something that has affected everybody. For me, it was extraordinary to arrive in Lagos in March 2020 just a few days before our lockdown was announced. That meant that my partner and I had to sleep on the floor for a few days before being able to order things via the internet and have them delivered. But there were also so many things that we couldn’t actually buy. So the pandemic was a formative period for me, because it also gave birth to my COVID-19 series. 

Most of my work develops from a space where something’s affecting me so much that I try to find a way to let it out. During COVID, people were trying to take charge of their lives, isolating themselves for protection. But in isolation, there are certain things you also need to avoid going crazy. And one is entertainment. 

Osinachi, Pool Day II – Portrait of an Artist, 2021

JB: As far as the NFT explosion is concerned, I think you’re about as OG as they come. A lot of people know you as Africa’s foremost NFT artist, and I want to return to where it all started. Owing to the transformations of the last year, this is no longer the space that you and I came into. Nor is it the community in my opinion that you and I came into. I get a lot of questions asking whether we are simply recreating the old art world, whether we are really seeing any more diversity in the NFT art world than that which exists in the traditional art world. And I have often recounted your story, as well as that of Carlos Marcial. And in the past, that was authentic, because there weren’t so many people in the space. But now I feel like there should be more Osinachis and Marcials. Is there still some glimmer of hope, in your mind, that NFTs can become what we hoped they were going to be in the beginning? 

O: When I arrived in the space, I met a number of people with stories like mine, from Hackatao to Coldie to Carlos Marcial: All of them digital artists who couldn’t find opportunities in the traditional art space, either because people could simply right-click and save their work or because there was simply no way to prove scarcity. All of these artists were struggling and simply living off commissions. And I also did commissions. So when it became possible to sell one’s work for $200, $500, even $1,000 it was mind-blowing and it brought this joy as well as love to the community because artists were also supporting other artists. It became a social feedback loop within that community. 

But then the boom created a distraction, because new players from the traditional art space heard about the money and wanted to take part, make money, make a name for themselves. And I started to ask myself: Is this the community that I envisioned? But since a lot of African artists reach out to me, I established a workshop for those who want to enter the NFT space, names like Haneefah Adam, Owo Anietie, Anthony Azekwoh, Ayanfe Olarinde, and Jesse Uranta.

Haneefah Adam, On Becoming, 2021

Owo Anietie, Height, 2021

Anthony Azekwoh, The Red Man, 2020

Ayanfe Olarinde, Abbas Farewell, 2021

Jesse Uranta, Pure, 2022

Through my curatorial work with ART X Lagos I’m able to give these new artists an opportunity while also ensuring equity between male and female artists, which is something we need to pay close attention to in the space. I feel that if the OG’s do this sort of thing, then we can hold on to our vision for the NFT space, accepting that there are limits to our control. Of course, it’s not really about control, so much as calling attention to the serious digital art that is being produced right now.

JB: Do you think someone could simply walk in off the street and make it in the NFT space today? Or is it so noisy that they would need an OG like you or me to bring them in? And if they do need an OG, is this system even what we want it to be anymore? Are we simply the new gatekeepers? 

O: Certainly the NFT space looks different today. I think that if I discovered the space now, I would be distracted by all the money moving around. I would ask myself — as an artist who has found it hard to put food on my table through what I do — what sort of art sells in the space? And this would entail me losing my authenticity, and trying to borrow someone else’s style, or someone else’s authenticity. So it would influence the type of art that I would put out. 

So it’s important to change the narrative, which is difficult, but I think it’s possible to achieve. I don’t like Twitter, honestly, because it gets really noisy there. So I just come in, put out a tweet, and leave. But I think I have to do more, which means putting authentic stories out there, so that the people who deserve it, the real artists, actually get attention and so that we start talking about what really matters in this space, which is the art made using this new medium.

Osinachi, Portrait of the Artist at 29, 2020

JB: I’ve been getting pushback lately, mostly on Twitter, from people with a more traditional art background. And I went to art school, so I have a level of artistic training, but I keep pushing for a very broad definition of art, whereby everyone can be an artist. And I think I’m getting pushback because people see all this work being put out there that seems to require minimal effort. Do you think that anybody can be an artist, or is it more specialized? Is it a question of talent? Are there distinctions we should be making between physical and digital artists?

O: When people come to me and tell me they want to enter the NFT space, the first question I ask them is: Are you a creator? Do you make art, or music perhaps? And before they say “no, but I can learn,” I ask them whether they might instead like to enter the space as a collector. Of course, most people don’t want to do that, they want to enter as creators, and maybe for the wrong reason. I may be biased, but I believe that if you haven’t been making art before discovering the NFT space, and if the existence of that space is the sole motivation for your making (what you might call) art, then that is the wrong motivation, and what you’re going to produce will be low-effort art. I’ve taken years to build my style, working since I was 15 years old — pre-blockchain, pre-crypto — not believing I would ever make a living from it. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and that was making art. 

JB: So have NFTs been bad for art on the whole, accelerating people’s need to make things faster or just for the sake of money?

O: Based on my experience, I think NFTs are better for art. And to support that claim I often tell a particular story. Back in 2016, I was reaching out to galleries aggressively to take a chance on my work, to take a chance on me. And I had to be honest with them that, number one, my works are digital, and number two, I make them on Microsoft Word — two points that might make someone not take your art seriously. And there was a gallery owner based in Europe, who tried to respond to my email in a way that only his staff could see, but somehow it arrived in my inbox. And he replied: “What does he mean that he makes art on Microsoft Word?” And I felt hurt by that. 

But now, I’m able to cut out this person who doesn’t believe in my art, who is capable of preventing my art from even reaching the collectors. Middlemen like this can put artists down. But through the NFT space, I’ve been able to circumvent these middlemen and put my art out there. And now these middlemen are the ones coming to me asking to collaborate. So I wouldn’t be here without NFTs. Certainly, I’d still be making art. But I wouldn’t be making so much from my art. A lot of my fellow artists in Nigeria are of the same opinion.

I remember signing a contract with the first online marketplace that was willing to put up my work. And these guys were taking 60%, and I was taking 40%. And I was even happy that they were actually willing to do this. So you see what digital artists have had to go through to make it in the NFT space.

Osinachi, Nduka's Wedding Day, 2019

JB: Is there friction between the old art world — the world of Christie’s and Sotheby’s — and the new art world? Are SuperRare and Async and the other people you’re working with really that different? 

O: Back in October, I showed five artworks at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London, prior to their being auctioned at Christie’s. Yet, for me the art fair was more successful than the auction because it was a platform for me to educate people about NFTs. And this is why I think it’s important to work with players in the traditional art world, because they can serve as a bridge to reach new collectors. The other reason to work with them is for the validation because, as an artist, if your work is auctioned by Christie’s, it doesn’t simply validate you as an artist, it also validates NFTs. It tells people that this is something they should take seriously. So, for me, validation and education are good enough reasons to collaborate with these guys. 

At the same time, there are also so many faults that we need to correct in the NFT space. I remember when one particular platform was launching their NFT marketplace, they reached out to me, and I was interested. But a fellow OG in the space whom I respect got in touch via DM, and pointed out that they set their artist’s royalty at less than 10%. Now, knowing the work that had gone into setting the 10% standard across all platforms, I had to delist my artworks from that platform. And of course they reached out to me again and again and told me they were going to review this practice. But the experience revealed to me that I now had the upper hand. And because, as artists, we now have the upper hand, we can actually dictate how we want things to be done by these traditional players.

Osinachi, To Kiss a Frog, 2021

It’s also important to stress that these players, like SuperRare for instance, are very important in the space right now. Because they do the job of curation. And collectors love it, because the job has already been done for them. I always tell people that this process of trying to tear down the gates or remove gatekeepers is a journey, not a destination. And each step we’re taking, we’re getting closer and closer. And what that means in practice is that artists now have to aspire to obtaining their own personal smart contract. 

But for those artists who are making good art but perhaps aren’t so well-known, curated platforms offer an opportunity to be seen. On the other hand, if you go on these platforms — and this goes for all curated platforms — you see only one or two Africans, which is not cool. I love what SuperRare is doing through their $RARE token to give that power to their community. And that is one way that we can solve this problem of having fewer Africans, or Black people, or women, or members of the LGBTQ community on these platforms. 

Osinachi, Staff of Disobedience, 2020

JB: People are surprised that Nigeria is the third largest crypto adopter in the world, and it makes one question whether there exist problems of technical complexity and onboarding challenges around the world. How do you view the situation?

O: I don’t see these technological challenges as serious barriers. In Nigeria, a large proportion of the population is young. And young people, of course, want modern things, innovative things, and crypto is one such thing. And it was actually because of this that the Central Bank of Nigeria banned banks from engaging in cryptocurrency transactions. But despite that, young people are still doing their thing in the crypto space because they no longer trust traditional institutions like banks. They know that crypto is one way that you can actually grow your money, and they want to do this and they are getting it done. 

There are computers everywhere. And it’s gotten to a point where if the police see a young person with a laptop, they assume that they are a fraudster, because they’re rich enough to actually have a laptop and to engage in crypto. But crypto is not really illegal, the only thing that is illegal is doing it through your bank. So the barriers are there but young people are finding ways around the barriers that impede education in cryptocurrency. They are doing it for their peers and educating their friends about crypto. But they are also scared because they know that NFTs are tied to crypto, and they don’t want the government coming after them. 

There was actually an art fair, where they had to avoid use of the word crypto, and stick strictly to the language of NFTs, because of the government. So while there are barriers, you can trust Nigerians, we have our way of getting around them.

JB: I know how hard you work and how much demand there is for your work. But do you ever feel pressure to represent an entire continent? Even though there are probably 10,000 great crypto artists in Africa, is it a point of pride that people see you as a standard bearer?

O: I think it’s both pressure and pride. I’m proud that people are recognizing my work, that my Instagram is blowing up. I’m also proud that I’m inspiring other artists from Nigeria, from Africa, and even Black artists from around the world. But the pressure is also there to keep to my standard artistically. That is the one pressure. And that is the pressure I enjoy and that I’ve embraced.

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Born Prince Jacon Osinachi Igwe, Osinachi grew up in Aba, Nigeria. Known widely as Africa’s foremost crypto artist, he creates figurative portraits that mirror his personal experiences through a unique visual language perfected over 15 years. His practice continues to drive the conversation around NFTs, proving that works produced in the space can speak to a larger humanity.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT where he serves as CEO.