When he was eleven years old, Osinachi’s father took him to a cybercafe and created an email for him. It was the early 2000s, the Internet was new in Nigeria, but Osinachi had begun to learn to type on Microsoft Word, trying to find his feet in the first art form he fell in love with: literature. “I was very much interested in storytelling,” he says. “After hawking for my grandmother, I would trek the long distance to the cybercafe and log onto the Net to read magazines. When I got bored from typing stories, I played around in MS Word to see what else I could do.”
In the last three years, and without any formal training, Osinachi has used MS Word to create a visual art oeuvre that is increasingly attracting attention, and that has been likened to “a rich collage of vibrant fabrics.” He is part of a group of Nigerian digital artists, including Dennis Osadebe and Joseph Obanubi, who are making stunning work. But most of his contemporaries, unlike him, are using art applications like SketchBook Mobile and Magic Tate Ball.
Unlike the Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi, who began using Microsoft Excel to create landscape art because he wouldn’t buy painting materials, Osinachi’s adoption of MS Word came from the desire to apply the familiar in a new setting. At the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he studied Library and Information Science and English, he took an elective course in Fine Arts, out of curiosity. He was already a writer then, a published essayist. “I saw myself moving from textual storytelling to visual storytelling,” he says of that moment.
“Digital artists are often placed below traditional artists,” Osinachi tells me. “Looking at my present style, some people mistake it for traditional art. People say they want to buy it and when I mention it’s a print, they get surprised. When you mention digital art, what comes to most people’s minds is design—complimentary cards, illustrations. You go to an exhibition and you hardly see any work by digital artists.”
“The one problem that people have often talked about when it comes to digital art is the difficulty to prove provenance,” he explains via email. “As a collector, you want an artwork you’ve bought to be authentic and also come with a certificate of authenticity, in case you want to transfer that artwork to someone else. Because these are very easily obtainable in the traditional art world, most collectors don’t value digital artworks, no matter how much they love it.”
Some of his work is engagingly political, drawing from conversations on gender, tradition, and race. With Nduka’s Wedding Day, he wanted “to explore what it means to be androgynous. Being what society said you shouldn’t be. A subversion.” With Umu Ada 49-99, inspired by the cover art of popstar Tiwa Savage’s song “49-99” but named after the traditional Igbo female group of daughters which wields immense communal power, he depicts how “women have so much power when they come together that men are afraid of them.” Nwa Bu Ihe Nrite “is about creating validity for yourself as a woman.”
In essence, Osinachi situates normalcy as rebellion, everyday living as protest. His subjects have no eyes—a foreclosing, he intends, of prejudice. For their skin, he uses an ashy pigment, like dark marble, giving them an enriching feel.
Last month, as anti-racism protests engulfed America, Osinachi included a white subject for the first time, in a portrait of the moment of George Floyd’s murder by the white police man. “It affected me like it affected many Africans,” he says. “I keep worrying about my friends in the US. I keep worrying if I can go to the US and feel safe as a black person. It brought out a lot of fears. I couldn’t go out to protest but this is my way of showing solidarity.” He donated 80% of the proceeds to Black Lives Matter.
“It starts with a vision, this composition in my head that I want to make,” Osinachi says. “When I’m ready to work on it, I get models—mostly my friends—and I compose everything that I need. My last post on Instagram, The Prophecy, I told the model how to pose, what to hold. I take a photo and use it as a reference to draw in MS Word, adding other things I like.”
In 2018, Osinachi went into cryptoart, a rising trend in the art world. By registering and distributing his digital art through blockchains, he was able to not only get visibility for his work without a gallery but also to set the price and control its value. He has sold enough to now be regarded as “Africa’s foremost cryptoartist.” “With blockchain, I and other cryptoartists whose works are digital have been able to achieve the same, if not an even higher, stance as traditional artists,” he says. “Being a sort of a ledger, the blockchain can provide information on the provenance of the artwork and also provide a digital certificate of authenticity—two things that can never be wiped off from the digital space. Artists stand to have a greater control of their work. It also allows them to reach a wider audience. I’m based in Lagos, and while still here, collectors in New York can buy my work on the blockchain as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens).”
With the global lockdown, these advantages become even more crucial. “We’ve seen galleries and other art-affiliated businesses close down because of COVID-19, but cryptoart continues booming,” Osinachi says. “The audience can see and appreciate and even buy digital artworks without leaving their physical space. And the truth is that blockchain-based art isn’t going to slow down. Collectors from the traditional art scene are even entering the cryptoart space.” Osinachi’s works on cryptoart platforms, including SuperRare, MakersPlace, Async, and Rarible, are animated. “Animated works are more appealing in the cryptoart world,” he says.
If Osinachi has found a niche, he has also found acclaim. This year, he was a finalist for the Bridgeman Studio Award. This year, too, his debut solo show, billed for March at the Kate Vass Galerie in Zurich, was postponed due to COVID-19. Osinachi: Existence as Protest has since resumed.
Osinachi is driven by an urgency for consumption. “Visual art is immediate,” he says. “You look at the work and you take it in immediately. This is what true art means—to capture and, in the process of capturing, to do more, maybe tell a story.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a Nigerian writer, editor, journalist, and curator. As Editor of Folio Nigeria, he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has extensive experience working in the African literary scene. He is currently the chair of judges for The Gerald Kraak Prize, Africa’s only award for social justice, sexuality, and gender, and he was a judge for The Morland Scholarship, Africa’s biggest grant. He was an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. From late 2016 to early 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper to a standard platform, creating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer visibility advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. He has an MA in African studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. From 2017 to 2018, he taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.