What Are NFTs and What Do They Mean for BIPOC Artists?
NFT art has recently sold for millions, heralding a new age of opportunity for some and loss for others. Tash Moore looks at what a selection of BIPOC artists are doing about it.
Lizzy Aroloye, Alien Girl Loading, from series transcending. Courtesy the artist.
By Tash Moore 23. April 2021
The worlds of art and finance have long intersected, and now they are fusing into something that might change the direction of digital Black art forever: NFTs or non-fungible tokens.
It may sound like currency at a mushroom-themed children’s amusement eatery, but an NFT is actually a merger of blockchain technology with traceable ownership and thus a redesigned bridge between creation and compensation. Maintaining documentation and authentication of online designs and content can be gatekeeping barriers to profit – especially for creators of color, and for Black or indigenous creators specifically. This is because historically Black and indigenous communities’ legal documents regarding provenance, ownership rights, and insurance haven’t always been respected, so sometimes such communities place less trust in official procedures. Blockchain might change that for the better.
In real life people are unlikely to mistake a mass-produced poster for a one-off painting, for example, yet in virtual space creative content typically relies on sharing and/or going viral to elevate itself. Online, ownership can get very muddy as work is easily reproduced, reconfigured away from its original presentation, or copied. Fans and opportunists alike can work around a watermark or paywall, or they can outright copy design work with little risk as long as they don’t draw too much attention or profit. Encoded work on the other hand is traceable, and the registered owner is entwined in the distribution no matter how often the work is downloaded, retweeted, or shared without attribution. Think of it as a permanent financial watermark ensuring that this image is the real deal.
We’ve gathered a few resources to help you track NFTs’ development as well as notable Black artists already dominating the burgeoning space. An excellent resource is the NFT Roundtable Podcast (https://www.blacknftart.co/nft-roundtable-podcast) developed by Umba Daima. They recently featured a 3D artist named Andre Oshea (https://twitter.com/andreoshea), who watched the NFT space for a few months before diving in and going from no sales to earning 4.5 ETH (or $8000 USD at the time). You can compare the overall price point of ETH over the past six years here (https://www.statista.com/statistics/806453/price-of-ethereum/). Oshea is also showing his work in a virtual gallery due to the costs of exhibiting physically in a difficult economic climate mid-pandemic. Another artist to watch is Nkosi from Melbourne, Australia (https://twitter.com/gldeng6rl), whose digital creativity embraces post-afrocontemporary feminine expression within a virtual landscape.
Lana Denina (https://twitter.com/lanadenina) used Foundation (https://foundation.app) to accept bids on her artwork with admirable confidence. Foundation is an auction-style platform that enables artists to promote their work within a set timeframe, such as twenty-four hours. Watching a BAME/BIPOC artist act as her own middle-(wo)man within a competitive financial and tech space is always inspiring. Foundation allows buyers to set up their cryptocurrency wallet of choice using MetaMask (https://metamask.io), a gateway utility for blockchain newbies as well as seasoned developers. NFTs are often design-based but also have expanded into music and other digital content, which lends flexibility to the marketplace. Non-binary creators like Niall Ashley (https://twitter.com/niallashley_) are sharing their vulnerability as well as explosive creativity without the imaginatively limiting act of trying to submit work to online outlets that may not have caught up to diversity and inclusion, especially regarding gender-bending content. Niall Ashley also makes great use of the online marketplace/gallery Zora (https://zora.co).
There is a dark side to NFTs, most pertinently its huge carbon footprint, as discussed previously within the wider blockchain conversations taking place at C& (read the article in the C& Print Issue #11 here). On Cryptoart.WTF, artists could track their carbon footprint in the form of megawatts consumed, with additional data available related to launches, showings – especially virtual shows – sales, and resales, but the creator took the site offline as of March 2021 due to doxxing and threats levied at artists in response to their energy usage. Awareness seems to come at a price.
Entrepreneurial stars like Gary Vee are warning about bubbles (https://youtu.be/uZ_9HXU67RY) and the strong possibility of a market crash or correction, but Vee says he will spend the rest of his life investing in NFTs, before and after the stabilization of their prices. Vaynerchuck predicts that the pathways and tracking of sales will weigh more than the entity being traded. In other words, the value of the data tied to the sale or resale may matter more than the design or composition of the piece being traded. With this in mind, dedicated TikTok videos counsel viewers on how to purchase and flip cryptoart (the nomenclature surrounding NFTs hasn’t been decided on yet) and Vaynerchuck cautions that the next forty-eight months will be exciting but costly for some.
We’ve looked here at the micro-impact for everyday creators and the macro-impact regarding the continued environmental degradation that’s leading to terminal decline in our world. While NFTs can level the playing field and the accessibility of the design world, many may be concerned that lack of physicality means the environmental impact being overlooked. As noted by social media commentator J.R. Yusef, the fact that the NFT marketplace and cryptocurrency in general is largely cashless makes it more accessible (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv4mGrkLWDg). Historically, Black and brown consumers have been isolated and excluded from financial markets in big and small ways including unfair lending practices, job industry isolation, discriminatory housing, and the undermining of economic growth through the targeting of Black business districts for destruction, either officially (slum clearance) or unofficially (riots). In under-served communities, accessing the marketplace can be difficult to do on a large scale. That built-in exclusion needs to be addressed in order to create a more equitable digital economy.
With so much excitement and so many unknowns, those collectors who are interested but cautious may decide to dabble in digital and analog equally until they know more about how NFTs and their consequences will develop over the next few years. It seems that humans have been speculators since time immemorial. It stands to reason that cryptoart will not just remake design income but also that innovations in this branch of the economy will influence sales and purchases in unrelated industries such as real estate (https://www.coindesk.com/nft-sales-mean-digital-real-estate). Virtual properties are continually being built and maintained by real-life corporations with tangible benefits and losses. Goods and services are now being delivered to the physical addresses of consumers paying with cryptocurrency in online shops. Particularly in our post-COVID world, it can be more financially profitable to maintain a house whose roof never needs to be repaired or a virtual storefront which can be open twenty-four hours a day to anyone anywhere without staff always present. We’ll be watching.
Tash Moore is a bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur, and activist who is deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion. She was a coordinator of the 2018 C& Critical Writing Workshop in Detroit.