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A shop window without a door in a busy thoroughfare of Tunis. Behind the porthole a digital work is shown on a screen. Here is Mono, the very first gallery in Africa entirely devoted to non-fungible tokens (NFT), these digital certificates of ownership registered in the blockchain and backed by cryptocurrencies that have hysterized the art market for a year and a half. “Passers-by are hypnotized, they wonder what this UFO is in the middle of the medina”smiles Kenza Zouari, co-founder of the space with Shiran Ben Abderrazak.
A year ago, the general public was not aware of this technology known only to fans of digital art. Everything changed on March 11, 2021 when a work by Beeple, a completely unknown American artist, was awarded at Christie’s for the astonishing amount of 69.3 million dollars (at the time 58.2 million euros). Many artists therefore storm into the breach, also in Africa. In October 2021, Nigerian crypto artist Osinachi sold five NFTs inspired by English painter David Hockney’s swimming pools for $214,000 at Christie’s. The 30-year-old is convinced, “the only way to add value to our work is to associate it with a certificate of authenticity”†
And sometimes the only way to make yourself known. In fact, nothing is more difficult than forcing the doors of the traditional art world, which doesn’t always welcome black artists. “On the platforms† we look less at the skin color and origin of the artists »notes the French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diallo.
“NFTs offer autonomy and security”
However, the young woman from New York was hesitant when, in November 2021, the Quantum platform contacted her to sell in the form of NFT 100 images from her “Divine” photo series. “But in an hour and a half I sold 100 works for 100,000 dollars, it was surreal”, she says, still amazed at the performance. Since then, Delphine Diallo has never stopped convincing her African colleagues to jump on the bandwagon. “Why give 50% to a gallery, wait a month or two to get paid?she asks. NFTs offer autonomy and security. †
Her colleague Linda Dounia Rebeiz, 27, also says NFTs have changed her life: “When I discovered this technology a year and a half ago† I told myself this was the best way to launch my career as an artist. † Not only does she now make a living from her work, but the reputation gained online has opened the doors of the Cécile Fakhoury gallery, located in Dakar and Abidjan, with whom she has started a collaboration. “I feel like I’m much more respected since I’m an NFT artist”adds Delphine Diallo.
Despite everything, not so easy to exist in the digital jungle. “It’s not easy to create a community and stay in the game because things change very quickly”, acknowledges the Moroccan creator and artistic director Muhcine Ennou, who lives in Amsterdam. For Linda Dounia Rebeiz, redemption comes through the collective: “We must work together”† pool resources to have more strength and visibility as a group. † Thus, the young woman created Cyber Baat, a collective of artists of African descent grouped in an autonomous organization decentralized on the blockchain.
Low quality of internet connections
But there are more concrete hurdles to overcome, starting with the poor quality of internet connections, weighed down by frequent power cuts in Africa. NFTs are also not without environmental consequences. The environmental cost of a single Ethereum transaction (the digital reference currency for these tokens) is therefore equal to the electricity consumption of a European for four days. To offset the environmental footprint of these energy-intensive tokens, South African platform The Tree offers artists the opportunity to partner with a Cape Town organization, Greenpop, to plant trees.
Another pitfall is the African government’s policies regarding cryptocurrency, including in the countries most familiar with digital assets. Despite Nigerians’ hunger for digital assets, the country’s central bank has been waging a war on cryptocurrencies for several months now. “It makes it difficult to convert my income into local currency”Osinachi complains. In Tunisia, the purchase of cryptocurrencies is not prohibited. “But we don’t officially have the right to hold euros or dollars, the only currencies that can be converted into crypto”, acknowledges Kenza Zouari. Despite these challenges and market yo-yos, she is sure the NFT rush will not stop.
NFTs to Decolonize Artistic Heritage
To neutralize the vengeful spirit of their defeated enemies, the Pende, a Bantu people of Central Africa, carved figurative wooden figures in their likeness. For example, they had formed a sculpture to enclose the ghost of Maximilien Balot, a Belgian officer who was killed during an uprising in Congo in 1931.
The object is now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, United States, which has no plans to return it for the time being. Hoping to bend it, a collective of Congolese artists, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC), produced a print run of 300 NFTs of this sculpture in February, much to the chagrin of the American Museum, which believes that the action conflicts with its open access image policy.
The Nigerian website Looty is part of the same approach by selling NFTs made from 3D scans of looted objects in Africa, present in the collections of major Western museums. Nearly a quarter of the proceeds are used to fund scholarships for African artists under the age of 25. Next step for Looty: the construction of a virtual museum in the metaverse, an interactive virtual world, to house the repatriated objects.