The Lagos and Nairobi-based artist works at the intersection of the digital and physical world, fusing his passion for digital art with his sculptures and paintings.
By Vikki Keingati & Okwi Okoh, bird story agency
Chuma Anagbado gently squeezes a trigger to blow highly-compressed air through grooves forged by a precision drill bit at a workshop in Nairobi.
Hundreds of hours steeped in trial-and-error have led Anagbado here, crouched over a computer-controlled cutting machine known as a CNC router, as it carves out his latest piece, "Ola Aka". "Ola Aka" means "bangles" in Igbo.
Anagbado, a Nigerian multi-disciplinary artist and entrepreneur, has long dreamed of fusing a deep passion for digital art with his roots in sculpture and painting.
So, before manifesting the physical piece, Anagbado first made "Ola Aka" a non-fungible token (NFT), meaning the artwork has been authenticated using blockchain technology and is now an internet collectable.
"I wanted to tell a story about jewellery and how we wear them as Africans. I took inspiration from the pictures I saw as a child of women with beads and bangles. I was conversing with a friend, and she just gave an expression. I captured it and added other things like the bangles and the pattern. Once that part was done, it was good to go as an NFT," Anagbado says as the CNC whirs and hums nearby.
It took over eight hours to etch "Ola Aka" into the mvule wood panel that Anagbado chose for the piece, and process it to hold acrylic paint. The finished work was the first of his new series, one he describes as "phygital".
"Phygital" is a concept that is gaining traction worldwide and can be described as "using technology to bridge the digital world with the physical world to provide unique interactive experiences for the user".
"In my moments of solitude, I thought, 'It is all actually one thing. It is one expression. One piece that exists on both planes physically and digitally.' What I have done is expose my work on both platforms. If you buy the NFT, you get the physical piece shipped. If you buy the physical piece, then I just transfer the NFT to your wallet," Anagbado explained.
The significance of this phase in Anagbado's creative journey is not lost on Mark Shitakha, the proprietor of The Willowbough Collective, the bespoke woodwork company producing the tangible versions of Anagbado's collection.
"It's quite exciting because we now have African artists embracing digital fabrication as part of the entire process. It's been going on globally for I don't know how long, but we're just catching up to it now. It opens up a lot more ways for African artists to express themselves," Shitakha said.
Artists like Anagbado point to several factors that underpin their adoption of digital expression. Top internet-based NFT platforms like Opensea, Magic Eden, and Rarible present an opportunity to market beyond traditional borders.
Another critical motivator is that these platforms facilitate verified payments on established blockchains like Ethereum, Solana, and Polygon using their associated cryptocurrencies.
"We can reach out to the global audience now and we are now building communities around our creations, so the existence of digital art and its emergence and increasing use in Africa is a very welcome development that is clearly going to be leapfrogging the art practice as a whole in Africa," Anagbado added.
Chainanalysis, a firm that monitors blockchain activity around the world, reported in 2022 that at some point between June 2020 and July 2021, cryptocurrency payments in Africa passed the $100 billion mark.
It is unclear how much of Africa's "crypto pie" is eaten up by NFT transactions, like when "Ola Aka" sold for about $2,250, in January 2023.
One thing that artists, journalists, collectors, and traders agree on, however, is that the popularity of digital art on the continent is rising, especially in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, where the use of cryptocurrency is widespread.
"With the NFT space, you find a lot of people who previously couldn't find a marketplace for their work now have a place to show their expertise as musicians, artists, and even real estate services providers.
We should see highly efficient payments and settlements platforms utilising the technical facilities found in secured blockchains to provide a broader range of financial services," said Betty Waitharero, a board member of the Telos Foundation, which runs a blockchain by the same name.
But any African artist dreaming of quickly amassing a fat digital wallet needs to think again. Many African countries do not have a regulatory framework for blockchain technology and cryptocurrency use, while in some countries, crypto is banned outright.
That means transactions and conversions can be laborious, risky, and costly. Even without factoring in internet and initial registration costs, minting a single NFT can cost the average artist over US$100.
Analysts say there needs to be more investment in African digital art to sustain a thriving industry, especially during the current cryptocurrency bear market. That is one of the reasons why Anagbado supports the establishment of regional communities that can help develop the field by providing access to funding and methodology.
He has partnered with Charles Mbata, a digital art investor, collector, and curator, to create the Nigeria NFT Community. The Africa NFT Community, Kenya NFT Club, and Network of Africa NFT Artists also push the same agenda.
In the meantime, going "phygital" has presented the artist with a way to diversify and add value to his digital work.
Anagbado will follow the sector's general development as keenly as he tracks the tip of his brush as he applies a splash of colour to the art he hopes will soon appear on textiles and even the exteriors of tall buildings.
bird story agency