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February 13, 2023

How Inclusive is the NFT Space?

The NFT Asia community argues it’s time Web3 embraced the global majority
Credit: NFT Asia Discord — “How to Talk About Your Art” workshop. Courtesy of Clara Peh
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How Inclusive is the NFT Space?

The blockchain is rooted in an ideology of decentralization and open distribution. It is intended to be a global network of computers that enables access for all, regardless of geographical coordinates. By extension, art on the blockchain should also be a global and borderless ecosystem — an open field for a world creator economy. In practice, this is not the case, with the majority of top-selling NFT artists, leading conferences, and major exhibitions concentrated in the US and Europe, with artists in the global majority becoming a minority in the NFT space. 

It is this reality that NFT Asia seeks to redress, founded in March 2021 by a team of artists and curators looking to support Asian and Asia-based artists in order to level the playing field. As a natively digital collective, it focuses on creating a safe environment for knowledge sharing and fostering online and offline exhibition opportunities. Here, members of its community reflect on the power of NFT collectives to regenerate Web3.

Zenavï, Chaos I: Prologue, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Clara Peh: What has working with NFTs meant for you and your practice? 

Eri Harigai: As a digital artist, there weren’t many options for me to sustain a living other than through full-time or client work. 

NFTs provide an alternative path to create income through my art that doesn’t require me to trade time for money. 

It has also allowed me to dive deeper into my personal practice, something that was more difficult to devote time to in my career prior to NFTs. 

Zenavï: For me, NFTs are about freedom, both artistic and financial. With a background doing client work, I have always had to follow brand guidelines or rules. With NFTs, I am minting personal artwork, which is both exciting and daunting as you’re really putting yourself out there. But the feeling of having someone collect your work is ecstatic. 

Trends emerge and fade rapidly with NFTs. We’re all talking about AI right now and I know some artists are against it or reluctant to learn about it. But, to be honest, those who can adapt are the ones who will survive in the NFT space, where time passes quickly and people are constantly pushing the use of technology in art. This has forced me to experiment and try out new styles and approaches. 

Muhammad Nafay, Petrol Station, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Ninaad Kothawade: As a designer, working with NFTs has been the perfect gateway for me to learn about Web3 and the crypto space. The ability to mint my own work as NFTs has allowed me to take time out from my commercial commitments. Being an early adopter also meant I encountered something closer to a level playing field, where it was easier to connect with brilliant creatives around the world and to sculpt our own space in the community. 

Muhammad Nafay: NFTs have brought many artists, known or undervalued, to a community where we could discover each other’s work and make meaningful connections, especially via Discord and Twitter. Knowing that people look forward to collecting your work is a great motivator to create. 

NFTs offer a chance for people like me from Third World countries to gain financial freedom without being exploited by companies that undervalue artists. 

Radiosolace: I am a co-founder of 0xStudio, a Web3 studio that works with artists to help them launch their NFT collections. Our goals are to foster awareness and adoption of digital assets, to help artists establish their careers, and to uplift standards in the NFT industry, including artists’ living standards. 

Cyber YuYu: Before entering the NFT space, I never considered myself to be particularly tech-savvy. Exploring blockchain capabilities as a way to further artistic expression has opened doors that I could not otherwise have opened. NFTs have not only enabled me to build a global network for my practice, they also offer new tools to combat the rigidities of the traditional art world. 

Eri Harigai, (Still from) Living Statues — The Artist, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CP: Is your experience of Web3 affected by your geographical location?

NK: Unfortunately, yes. 

Web3 is a community-driven space and most of these communities are Western-centric. 

The majority of large-scale events and meet-ups happen in the United States or in Europe. They are not easily accessible to someone like me who’s from India. It makes it harder to network physically and make connections with the most influential people in the space, barring me from a lot of opportunities. 

Z: Definitely. Indonesia is quick to adapt to new trends and fast to adopt new technologies. Last year, I was able to participate in an exhibition with the Indonesian NFT community where we were able to exhibit with multiple galleries around Jakarta.

Installation view of “Generating / Iterating” at TheUpsideSpace, Singapore, with works by Ninaad Kothawade, 2023. Courtesy TheUpsideSpace

CY: Web3 is definitely affected by geographical location to some extent. I think everyone’s experience differs due to their physical location, with different time zones and spoken languages. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I am based in Europe, which allows me to be active in both Asian and American time zones, while my English is advanced enough to allow me to participate actively in the space. At the same time, I am fully aware of how less privileged individuals — especially those from the Global South — do not have the same opportunities. 

EH: My location has definitely made it harder to keep up with online and offline events outside of Asia, but it has also become easier as the space has grown and we have become more mindful of time differences. I think many of us are introverted night owls who prefer to connect online anyway. 

MN: I come from Pakistan where the majority do not know about Web3 or cryptocurrency, although we now have a youthful population that is interested in the space as a site for collecting and trading.

The political tensions here, as well as internet and power outages, interfere with one’s experience in Web3.

Having the worst ranked passport also makes it hard for me to travel abroad and attend NFT events, which really hinders growth. 

Radiosolace, The Watch, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CP: How can collectives like NFT Asia help to ensure a Web3 without borders? 

Z: The word “community” is thrown around all the time, but it didn’t really mean anything to me until I became a part of NFT Asia, which has also shown me the importance of building and maintaining that community. It’s important for communities to avoid creating barriers in order to engage with a wider audience. At NFT Asia, we try to focus on Asian artists but we also provide opportunities all around the world to engage with a more global conversation.

We have language channels that offer space for members to converse in their native languages so that they do not feel pressured to speak in English if they are not fluent. 

EH: I think NFT Asia is leading by example, holding exhibitions and community events all around the world as well as Twitter Spaces. Simply by inviting notable artists, collectors, and other groups to network with NFT Asia, we are bringing more eyes to artists from different locations which naturally brings us all closer. 

Eri Harigai, (Still from) Blooming, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CY: Through consistent, strategic actions that shed light on underrepresented communities, and bringing more attention to creative expressions often ignored by traditional markets, NFT Asia — in its first year of existence — has proved how collective determination and hard work can establish solid foundations for communities to support and celebrate one other. 

R: In order to ensure a Web3 without borders, NFT Asia focuses on the education and onboarding of artists and new adopters. It has always been a pillar of inclusivity and a springboard for artists’ careers. 

NK: Representation is extremely important in a space like ours which is still nascent. 

In a decentralized ecosystem, communities hold a lot of agency and must be the voice for people who often find themselves without one.

These include people from Third-World countries, those who do not speak English as their primary language, and those from marginalized sections of society. NFT Asia is one community that has always put these people first and helps them in their growth. It is only when everyone feels welcomed that the space can grow through everyone’s contributions. 

Cyber YuYu, The Swing, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

CP: What would you change about the NFT space to make it more supportive of your community? 

MN: The rise of toxic positivity and people being hooked to algorithms and engagement is a major concern in the NFT community. I personally know a lot of people who have already left this space because of the toll it took on their mental health. 

The life of an NFT artist or collector is hectic as one has to stay on Twitter and Discord constantly in order to avoid missing major announcements and community updates. I feel that projects and NFT influencers who have a major role in this space should convey the importance of taking a break, to “touch grass” as we say, in order to stay sane. 

Z: If I could change something, I would definitely want to have more platforms by which NFT Asia can reach artists and bridge communities. 

R: We need to create greater awareness of the industry and the different applications of NFTs to increase their reach to potential adopters. We must also work with regulators and governance bodies to help support that industry. With education, a proactive onboarding process, and a friendly regulatory environment the industry can grow exponentially and be more supportive of the currency community

Ninaad Kothawade, (Still from) O, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EH: I hope to see more communities like NFT Asia that focus on supporting artists. I also wish there was more education about how to build an art business so that both new and existing artists are empowered to make their own choices rather than being affected by trends in the market. 

NK: There is still a long way to go for this space to be truly inclusive and accessible. 

People and communities with influence need to make a conscious effort to include those who are less represented. We need to look beyond the same five names that show up on every list and in every exhibition.

We must also focus on spotlighting talent from Asia and supporting financially those who lack the resources to support themselves. This can help to grow the space more equitably, ensuring it doesn’t reproduce the same systems it had intended to revolt against.

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Eri Harigai is a new media artist with over a decade’s experience creating live performance visuals. She has produced award-winning projection mapping art that has been shown at light art festivals around the world. But when the pandemic affected the live events industry, she started to explore crypto art and saw potential in the metaverse. Her subsequent work has been exhibited globally, including at Art Dubai, ARTECHOUSE, and Superchief Gallery.

Ninaad Kothawade is an artist and designer from India who works with AI and 3D. She entered the NFT space in 2021 and currently serves as the Creative Director of NFT Asia, a community which aims to empower Asian artists on a global scale.

Muhammad Nafay is a digital artist based in Pakistan. His work has been featured at Art Dubai, Crypto Art Week Asia (CAWA), Procreate, and MrSuicideSheep. He also works as a UI/UX artist for leading Web2 clients.

Radiosolace is a photographer and art collector based in South East Asia with a focus on single-edition NFTs ranging from portrait painting to mixed media. 

Cyber YuYu (YuLiang Liu 劉·昱良) is a Berlin-based multidisciplinary visual artist. Originally from Taiwan, YuYu’s practice is a hybrid form of art and photography that creates unexpected and provocative bridges between styles, media, and eras. It appropriates western cultural history and embraces individuality in its most diverse form. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture from Tunghai University in Taiwan. 

Zenavï is an Indonesian illustrator, 2D animator, and member of Neko Nation. She is also an administrator of NFT Asia — the largest Asian NFT community in Web3. 

Clara Peh is a curator and arts writer based in Singapore. Her practice centers on emerging technologies, digital visual cultures, and experimental practices. She is the Founder of NFT Asia, as well as the Curator of Art Dubai Digital 2023. Peh’s curated projects include: “Proof of Concept” at Co-Museum, Singapore; “Generating / Iterating” at TheUpsideSpace, Singapore, and “A Screen of One’s Own”, Superchief Gallery NFT, New York. She sits on the advisory board for the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize.