Nigerian digital artist Osinachi is rewriting art history at the Toledo Museum of Art

By inviting digital artists into the museum space, the Toledo Museum’s residency is changing the perception of computer-based art

Osinachi’s Abitt: The Second Renaissance is Coming bears its history on the surface. Rendered in vivid colour, the central figure is framed by elements of the artist’s present. An historic building opposing a street art mural present the figure in the city, but a pair of highway signs specify the location as Toledo, Ohio. These elements in an almost forced perspective are brought together by textures — like Basquiat finds his textures on the street, Osinachi discovers his on the internet, incorporating them seamlessly into his digital canvas.

On 5 December, Christie’s will present Abitt: The Second Renaissance is Coming, as part of Next Wave: The Miami Edit, on Christie’s 3.0. It’s not Osinachi’s first appearance at the auction house: in 2021 he became the first African artist to have his work digitally auctioned as an NFT by Christie’s in Europe. But in just a few short years the landscape of digital art has greatly expanded, with wider institutional recognition of the form and the launch of on-chain platforms like Christie’s 3.0. Osinachi, who has spent much of the past year as an artist in residence at the Toledo Museum of Art, is also entering a new phase.

osinachi

Osinachi (b. 1991), ABITT: THE SECOND RENAISSANCE IS COMING, 2023. PNG. 4400 x 3142 pixels. Sold for 7.7 ETH ($16,864) in Next Wave: The Miami Edit on 12 December 2023 at Christie's 3.0

‘I prefer to introduce myself as a visual artist,’ says Osinachi. ‘I just happen to be an artist who works with the computer, creating natively digital artworks.’

Though he’s been dubbed ‘Africa’s foremost crypto artist,’ he transcends the confines of the genre. Inspired by painters like Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kehinde Wiley and Tchabalala Self, his work harmonises texture and form in a way that blurs the line between analogue and digital. Utilising a digital form of collage — both in his use of texture and shape — he often works with a model to craft his works.

‘I’ve never been one to work traditionally,’ he says, ‘and all these years it’s worked for me.’

osinachi

Osinachi working in Microsoft Word

Growing up in Aba, in eastern Nigeria, Osinachi developed a love of letters that brought him to art. He spent much of his time reading and writing. ‘Looking at the books I bought from the second-hand store, most of them had illustrations in them,’ he says. ‘When I started writing, I wanted illustrations in my books too.’ In 2004 his father brought him to a cyber café, where Osinachi opened an email account and began writing in what is still his preferred medium: Microsoft Word.

‘At some point,’ he says, ‘I thought that these illustrations were better for me than writing sentence after sentence and I decided to experiment with creating visual art.’

He graduated from the University of Nigeria in 2014 with a degree in Library and Information Science, and a minor in English and Literary Studies. Deciding to pursue a career in the art world while doing mandatory one-year national service, he began sending out emails to galleries, pitching his art. At the time, the response was often rejection, as though they liked his art, they didn’t accept digital works.

With the NFT boom in 2021, the market shifted and digital art entered the mainstream, cementing its status as a new medium to watch. Institutions such as Christie’s sold NFTs for extraordinary prices, like Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, museums like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MoMA began collaborating with and displaying digital art, while platforms like Opensea and Nifty Gateway began to emerge as dedicated marketplaces for digital works. This shift brought works by Osinachi and other computer-based artists directly into major galleries and auction houses.

What we are doing here is important for the art world, for art history
Osinachi

‘The NFT and Web3 space by definition pushes boundaries,’ Osinachi says. While museums and institutions have historically been reserved for traditional media, that is starting to change, bringing a new generation of creators to the fore. The Toledo Museum of Art, where Osinachi has been an artist in residence, is one of the institutions where exploring new, experimental media has become part of their mission.

Under Adam Levine, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, the museum has staged numerous exhibitions dedicated to digital art practice, such as Alexandra Daisy Ginsburg’s recent Machine Auguries: Toledo, which engages with artificial intelligence, and Stan Douglas’ film Doppelgänger (2019), which they brought into the metaverse for audiences, as digital avatars, to explore. It almost felt natural, considering their dedication to the medium, to begin a residency.

‘We had been thinking about how we could fully engage with artists who create digitally,’ Levine says about the origins of the residency, ‘bringing artists into our community, and going into theirs. Our goal was to treat digital art as art, and to give them the opportunity to explore their own practice and really build on this notion of community, which is as important for us here as it is in the Web3 space.’

Osinachi working in the glass studio at the Toledo Museum of Art

Osinachi working in the glass studio at the Toledo Museum of Art

The museum aims to give artists the resources to expand their practice, exploring their voice in any variety of ways.

‘In the residency, I’ve been given a space to create and experiment,’ says Osinachi. ‘In addition to creating art digitally I have, for example, begun to create a work with stained glass, which I never would have expected. We hope to create a sort of blueprint that other institutions can follow.’

In practice, this creative freedom establishes digital media as one of many tools in an artist’s toolbox. Through this residency, Osinachi has begun experimenting in physical media, like glass, but bringing digital art into the museum also encourages artists who work in physical media to experiment in a digital space.

‘What we are doing here is important for the art world, for art history,’ says Osinachi. ‘Everyone is welcome to participate in it. Anyone who makes art has to learn different methods and media of creating, deciding on their own what they prefer. I think about digital art as sort of like the Internet: it is for everyone.’

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