Chioma Onyenwe Is Taking African Art To The Global Market

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Chioma Onyenwe is an art curator, film programmer, filmmaker, director, violinist, founder of Raconteur Productions and cofounder of Artdey Africa, an online platform that helps connect African artists to the global market.

Born in Lagos, Onyenwe was a bubbly, talkative child who wanted to tell stories and have a career in film. With a first degree in economics, Onyenwe never really envisioned a career attached to that, instead she was interested in exploring her options and seeing what life had to offer. While studying at the University of Lagos, Onyenwe was an active participant in student fellowship, often planning shows and events.  She attributes her creative pursuits to the experience she gathered while being a part of fellowship. Onyenwe also volunteered to go on film and documentary sets and by the time she was done with university, she knew for sure that she wanted to delve into the world of film. Her final year thesis was based on the Nigerian film industry and Nollywood’s impact on the economy and job creation. 

In 2010, Onyenwe released her first work in TV —  God Damn It, It’s Monday, a web series which was an adaptation of a blog. In 2017, she was involved in the production of The Bar Man TV, Africa’s first reality series about the craft of bartending for HA! HA! media. She also worked on documenting the Face of Okija pageantry where she focused on using her storytelling skills for branding and creating more visibility.

Onyenwe, who used to work in consulting and investment banking made a full time switch to film in 2013. She volunteered at African International Film Festival (AFRIFF) and in 2014, she joined AFRIFF as a programme director. She would go on to become artistic director for AFRIFF from 2019 to 2021. She credits AFRIFF for providing her with enough structure to understudy, network and discover the work of filmmakers across the continent. She recalls seeing Of Good Report, a Jahmil Qubeka film and experiencing what film making looked like outside the Nigerian and American movies that she was used to.

As an art curator, Chioma Onyenwe makes it a point of duty to prioritise local art. In 2015, while in Kigali she purchased art from a man who owned an orphanage and taught children how to paint. Barely a month after, the artist she had patronised was profiled by CNN and commissioned by the White House, immediately increasing the value of his work. The need to provide access for local artists and bring their work to a global playing field was a big deal for Onyenwe. She was also focused on demystifying art and the elitism surrounding it to show people that anyone can enjoy art for any reason they deem fit. In 2020, while she was in Kenya, the country went into lockdown at the peak of the pandemic. She had gone to the local art market before the lockdown was announced with the intention of buying a specific art piece but as a result of the lockdown, she had to leave Kigali without getting the piece and the seed of ArtDey Africa was sown. In the coming months, Onyewe would see first hand how the local art industry was affected by the pandemic with artists having to move back to the village as a result of poor sales. With the help of her siblings, she decided to target people in the diaspora who might have an interest in purchasing local art. With a focus on accessible, affordable and sustainable art, Artdey Africa kicked off in June 2020.

For the artists represented by Artdey, Onyenwe explains that sustainable income is the biggest challenge that they face. According to her,

“These artists are painting to survive and what they could use is more education and promotion because they are really talented, they are just not known.”

Onyenwe believes that most artists are unable to place a higher value on their work because they are unknown and will greatly benefit from access. Artdey is focused on providing artists with the luxury to create, sustainable income and an avenue to improve the quality of the art that they put out. For many artists who are a part of Artdey today, they had initial doubts. In a low trust society such as we have in Nigeria, a lot of artists were concerned that their work would get digitised or replicated but Artdey has managed to build trust to the point where they have artists coming to them seeking representation. Validation for Onyenwe comes in artists referring Artdey to other artists as a platform through which they can sell their art. She believes that Artdey has the potential to build the interest and market for African art on a global stage.

Speaking on her involvement with Peacock Original Bel-Air, Onyenwe revealed that cold emailing did the trick. Artdey, which has also supplied art to Truth Be Told, an Apple TV show, is responsible for the wealth of Nigerian art in Bel-Air, the reboot of the classic The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.  She explained that the process of getting Nigerian art to Bel-Air involved the art being purchased and not leased because the artists whose work were selected did not have the luxury of leasing out their work. She also noted how impressive the work being put out by Nigerian artists, with the creator of the Bel-Air show Morgan Cooper purchasing pieces from Artdey for his home.

Chioma Onyenwe is excited about the growing credibility and trust around the concept of Artdey. She explained that Artdey is excited about expanding and pushing African art to the global art community. With a background in economics, Onyenwe envisions a booming industry around art where every single sector is a viable business idea.