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Best businessperson to drag into this NFT art rush? Adenrele Sonariwo

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Adenrele Sonariwo Gallerist & Curator, Rele Art Gallery

Say, what path would you not take right now if going in such a direction would surely make you a millionaire? (In almighty dollars!) Wait, what am I even asking! You would happily hike from the shoreline of Lagos to desert borders of Katsina. You’d pawn a kidney. You might even invest your life savings in NFTs. Which is what everyone seems to be doing these days. Why? Because NFTs have been returning profits at rates never before seen anywhere on earth.

Please, let me paint you a picture. In October 2020, Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile bought a 10-second video (NFT) for $67,000. At the end of February 2021 (less than four months later), he sold the same art work for $6.6 million.

Yes, this story is still about Adenrele Sonariwo, the founder of the youthful and cosmopolitan Rele Gallery in Lagos and Los Angeles. But give me a second.

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So, what are NFTs, you ask. They are Non-Fungible Tokens. To cut a long story short, NFTs are unique codes which are embedded in digital assets—videos, digital paintings, GIFs, etcetera—and registered in a cybernated ledger (aka blockchain). The codes not just prove the ownership of the assets; they also verify their provenance.

While NFTs have been minting new millionaires lately, this argument has arisen among real aficionados of quality art: wouldn’t NFTs, by their whimsical use, dilute what it means to actually make and own art?

It’s a valid question, isn’t it? If CryptoPunk #6965, a pixelated portrait of a monkey wearing a fedora could sell for $1,545,929 (ETH 800) in February 2021, wondering what the justification might be for that price shouldn’t be out of the question. How long did it take to make? What art materials were used in the making of this gif? When it comes to NFTs, does great art talent even matter? Has the world turned a corner, a point of no return?

Now, this is where Ms Sonariwo might be dragged pendulum-wise by both sides of the debate. It was she, six years in the business and several exhibitions to her name, who once said, “Give me any industry and I can tell you how we can collaborate.”

Granted, she’d made that declaration in an interview with Business Day newspapers and the question hadn’t been about cryptocurrencies or blockchain. It was about how she, within one year of opening her eponymous gallery in 2014, landed collaborative deals with Samsung and got to attend ArtHamptons, the international art fair.

In her response she’d mentioned that she was a “go-getter” who liked to push herself to the extreme. “I’m talking with a cement company to see what we can do,” she’d said. “The creative part of me allows me to figure out how we can work with any industry.”

It’s either luck or fate then that, at this moment, here’s an industry, on the most bleeding edge of tech, that’s now open for collaboration. And who can Nigeria look to than the 34-year-old gallerist who’s making it her life’s mission to find more international fans for young Nigerian artists.

If Rele Gallery didn’t branch out of Lagos, she’d said when she launched the shop in LA earlier this year, that would amount to “a disservice” to the artists.

Art should be experienced up close, Sonariwo had said in that chat with Business Day.

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“It’s one thing to see the artwork on social media or online. But these artists have such amazing techniques that I felt it was really important to have people see them in person.” For instance, “The details of a painting can get lost in a picture. It might not wow you as it would if you walked in here. You don’t get to see, for instance, the detail of Ngozi Schommer’s works.”

And here’s her social enterprise angle. To discover young artists “who are doing cutting edge, interesting work” and expose them to better and most consistent pay is a major way for her to make a difference in her home country.

Now, pause for a minute and do a little arithmetic. Three points already stand Sonariwo out as a new-age Nigerian art businessperson. First, she would work with any industry in the peddling of creativity. Two, she would like the rest of the world to have a physical affair with new-generation Nigerian art. Three, she’d like to, in the course of her everyday business, do the society some good. But is there a third point? You bet your rarefied bitcoin!

Although still closely connected to the first two attributes, she’s been known to proudly wear such a tag as ‘Curious’ on her chest. Curiosity, she’s been quoted as saying, is one of the features anyone will need if they must do well in Sonariwo’s line of business. “You must be curious about artists and their work, visit their studio to see what they’re working on; collectors are curious as well.”

Perhaps, this curiosity and her declared duty to emerging Nigerian artists will pull Sonariwo to NFTs. Who says, for example, that, thanks to her, high quality non-fungible African art cannot grow into a coveted sub-group in the NFT market?

Some rumblings can already be heard of what may lie on the local art horizon. On March 31, a photographed portrait of Ethereum cofounder Charles Hoskinson was sold via a tweet from Hoskinson for $6,300. The artist? A 24-year-old Nigerian: Oyindamola Oyewumi.

If Sonariwo’s Rele Gallery hops on this galloping NFT ride, it wouldn’t be the first decent institution to do so. Case in point: top-of-the-food-chain auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s are already in on the action. This week (April 14), Sotheby’s pulled in $16.8 million for an assorted collection of digital artworks. Last month, Christie’s had sold a digital mosaic by the artist Beeple sold for $69.3 million. More will come.

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Maybe NFTs will become the ash at the end of a spent cigarette, a fad that’ll burn the wealth of thousands of foolhardy world citizens. Or maybe it will cast many more millionaire investors. The way for many artists to find out is to be guided by high-powered players such as Sonariwo—respected home and abroad.

When she returned to Nigeria in 2010 after her studies in the UK and US, the princess of Remo, Ogun State might not have imagined such dramatic changes in the art world happening this soon. But it is here and it looks like she’s got the perfect build for it.

As the NFT newly-minted art pioneer, Oyindamola Oyewumi, said to Coindesk, “If I put my art up as NFTs, sure, lots of people will see it. But some people will still prefer to purchase work from artists they already know.”

That may as well be true. But wait, wouldn’t the work of an unknown artist find kindly waters on OpenSea if the vessel bearing said asset were to be captained by a self-assured skipper, like Adenrele Sonariwo?

Oh yes, it would.

PS: OpenSea is the world’s largest digital marketplace for crypto collectibles and non-fungible tokens.

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