As he finished dinner one night in his suburban home in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, Hulio checked his phone and couldn’t believe his eyes. His art piece, titled We’ll Meet Again — a digital drawing of late African American entertainment and sports stars DMX, Kobe Bryant, Aaliyah, Chadwick Boseman, Tupac Shakur, and Nipsey Hussle — was beaming on a glittering billboard in New York’s Times Square. “I was proud, honored that my drawing was stationed next to chic billboard adverts of high-end brands like Versace, and bubbling above a stream of tourists,” the 19-year-old told Rest of World.
We’ll Meet Again had created a buzz on social media in early May and got noticed by hip-hop artist and Instagram influencer @billboardbaby, who was instrumental in getting the drawing posted above the world-famous intersection.
Within the next few hours, thousands of fans from Zimbabwe and around the world flocked to Hulio’s social media handles, hailing him as a breakthrough in Zimbabwe’s impoverished visual arts scene. “I heard it costs millions for corporations to advertise on Times Square billboards — and here I was, sitting in Zimbabwe, with my painting up there for free,” said Hulio, who started drawing only a year earlier, after finishing his A-level school examinations.
Hulio’s work went from his bedroom in Zimbabwe to one of the most popular public spaces on the globe without any art gallery gatekeepers, thanks to the phenomenon called NFTs.
A nonfungible token, or NFT, is a record of digital content that is built and typically managed on the Ethereum blockchain. NFTs are a fast-growing subset of the cryptocurrency and digital assets universe and can be the original digital version of almost anything: a GIF, a painting, a song, or a stamp for example. A buyer of an NFT receives a certificate secured in the blockchain technology, which authenticates them as the owner of that NFT. The digital asset cannot be replicated, photocopied, or forged and has only one owner at a given time. Global sales of NFTs topped $2.5 billion in the first half of 2021.
Hulio, whose real name is Nyasha Warambwa, and Michael Musekiwa, 27, who goes by the moniker @VITheLaw are just two of the stars of a new generation of Zimbabwe’s young and once-struggling artists. Other names who’ve sold their artwork as NFTs include Greatjoy Ndlovu, and Indigo Saint, as well as Nicholas Jim, who sells his photography as NFTs to support endangered wildlife.
Often underemployed or jobless, they are creating art in the suburbs of Harare and staking a claim in the global art world, thanks to the rapid evolution of the NFT space.
Hulio currently leads the pack of this new generation of young artists. He sneaks the country’s flag and Zimbabwean hip-hop culture references into his art: for example, the cover commissioned by R&B artist Chris Brown’s label, Sony, for the remix of the single “Go Crazy.” In another example, he created NFTs representing slave-trade-era ship landings, while also suggesting that rapper Soulja Boy discovered America first. We’ll Meet Again earned him plaudits and recognition from some of hip-hop’s megastars, like Drake and Timbaland. He caught Drake’s attention after sketching experimental covers of the singer’s albums, after the influential hip-hop magazine XXL tweeted his work.
Along with adulations, most of the money these young artists make comes from American buyers. The approach of tapping their love and familiarity with American hip-hop culture while retaining their Zimbabwean visual themes has been one of the reasons for their success. “I love drawing rap culture as a Zimbabwean outsider’s gaze on America from afar yet near,” said Hulio. “It’s a no brainer; 100% of my NFT art buyers on blockchain auctions are overseas buyers,” said Hulio. “I have yet to see a Zimbabwe collector.”
The onerous terms of legacy banks, punishing inflation, and tough forex markets in many African countries have collided with a youthful, creative explosion online to drive interest in crypto-commerce markets over the last year. The technology has effectively opened up a subset of the global art world for a variety of young African artists via a non-traditional route which circumvents majors galleries and international art shows. And at the same time it brings them into venues that could have taken a lifetime to enter. In October, Nigeria’s digital artist Osinachi became the first African NFT artist to be featured at the global auction house Christie’s in London.
Young Zimbabwean artists like Musekiwa and Hulio are now building awareness of digital art and the commercial possibilities of NFTs to pave the way for others like them. “I run a podcast called Artist to Artist. We talk of monetizing NFTs; we ally with domestic crypto corporations like CoinMadi, teaching people how to get into crypto,” Musekiwa told Rest of World.
The emergence of NFT marketplaces like GhostMarket has captured the imagination of young Zimbabwean artists, explained Carter Mavhiza, an artworks auctioneer in Harare. This trend is slowly helping digital artists make a proper living in Zimbabwe, said Hulio, refusing to confirm the amount he has earned by selling NFTs. Media reports peg his earnings at “thousands of dollars.” He told Rest of World the DMX NFT he sold was “a big win.”
But NFTs are not a straightforward quick money opportunity. Formidable legacy infrastructure obstacles still lie in wait. Zimbabwe has long been seen as a high-risk location in the eyes of Western tech and financial regulators. The artists said the biggest online marketplaces for NFTs, like OpenSea, block transactions via virtual private networks from Zimbabwe.
Musekiwa said he “always struggles” to get a strong enough connection when trying to sell his art on NFT marketplaces. He claimed his internet connection either gets slowed or blocked, even though it uses a VPN to help mask a user’s location from American financial institutions concerned about triggering U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwean financial institutions. In September, Deutsche Bank cut its provision of correspondent bank services to a local Zimbabwe bank.
“I mint the NFTs and sell them on the blockchain, but I have to go through hoops to get the cash into my hand. Getting paid online is hard here in Zimbabwe,” says Musekiwa.
For this reason, a workaround informal cash remittance economy based on trust has developed, moving funds between Zimbabwe and Johannesburg to London, elsewhere, and back. Hulio explained that, in spite of his new-found fame and success as a groundbreaking NFT artist, he has had to resort to these informal channels to reap the benefits. “Zimbabwe was always going to be a challenge in trying to receive payments,” he said. “Fortunately, I have a brother overseas, who makes his account available in the U.K.”