Virtually all the rage: digital artwork arrives in the UAE

Kristel Bechara, FOMO: NFT art, currently for sale on Foundation.App

While most art lovers eagerly anticipate art fairs and speculate about 2021’s next big thing among emerging artists, all the cool kids, tech entrepreneurs and cryptocurrency fans already know: NFTs are virtually all the rage. There’s an explosion in the market for NFTs, or non-fungible tokens – digital tokens that prove ownership of artwork that you can’t even touch.

There was much NFT talk at Art Dubai. Amid the conventional gallery sales of physical work, crypto-veteran Joel Dietz (former Ethereum and MetaMask founder) ran a ‘crypto-art cruise’ featuring digital works by UAE-based Amrita Sethi, Playmate of the Year Debby Gommeren and Sophia the Robot. Dietz said he’ll be making Dubai his primary residence and clearly sees the city as a potential hub for all things crypto.

Eye-watering prices have been achieved in the last few months for digital art in a market propelled by the rising value of cryptocurrencies. Until October last year, $100 was the most Beeple (Mike Winkelmann to his mum) had ever achieved for his prints; then Everydays – The First 5000 Days ®ght) fetched a record-breaking $69.3 million at Christie’s last month. Since then NFTs seem to be everywhere …

NFTs for beginners

NFT stands for non-fungible token, which in essence is a digital signature backed by blockchain technology that proves ownership of something. ‘Fungible’ is defined as easy to exchange for something of equivalent value. So ‘non-fungible’ means the object in question – the token – can’t be replaced or replicated. It is unique to whoever owns it. And unlike say Bitcoins, which are all identical by design, NFTs are unique.

To some degree, what NFTs offer for sale is the idea of scarcity. Crucially, NFTs provide a way to prove the authenticity of digital art, to demonstrate ownership, and to put a value on it. A screensaver might be a marvellous visual artwork, and it might even carry some kind of copyright message; but it would be impossible to enforce that copyright, and anyone who chooses to could download and display the art.

An NFT is a unique file (or more accurately a series of unique files) that live on a blockchain and can guarantee the authenticity of the work in terms of its creator, its ownership, rules for access to it, and how it can be resold. When the ownership changes, the artist can stay in the (digital) picture – the best NFTs assure the creator a royalty in the form of a share of future profits from resale, a attractive option for artists who can see the value of their work spiral in speculations with no benefit coming back to them.

It’s possible to buy a token that represents art in the physical world, incidentally, but NFTs primarily back digital-only assets like an image or a tweet.

Early adopter

“Over the past couple of months, you could not really talk about digital art without segueing into the topic of cryptocurrencies and how they are shaking up the art world”, says Dubai-based Lebanese-born artist Kristel Bechara.

She was drawn into the world of NFTs by a casual conversation with friends at local gallery. “I wanted to be an early adopter of this amazing technological development into how I presented my art to the world. I started by accepting payment in cryptocurrencies on my website shop. Then I discovered NFTs.”

Bechara has launched what she’s claiming as the Middle East’s first NFT digital artwork by a woman. The series, called Beauty in Diversity & DeFi, will only be available for purchase on OpenSea, one of the world’s largest marketplaces for crypto collectibles and NFTs.

She’s also just opened her first gallery in DIFC, showcasing her latest collection Psychomachia, a series of paintings inspired by a 5th century epic poem about the struggle between good and evil.

magpie chatted with Kristel to learn more about NFTs and what it feel like to be the first female Arab artist to throw herself into the Wild West of the art arena.

magpie: What’s your background, Kristel?

Kristel Bechara: I was introduced to art very early on in life, as my late father was a surrealist artist and a sculptor. I grew up being surrounded by art and I was always encouraged to express myself, ask questions and following my creative impulses.

My transition from an art hobbyist into a professional artist started about 12 years ago when I moved to Dubai. I took my time developing my own unique style, this is where my formal education and professional background in graphic design came into play – I have a BA in design.

My style further evolved when I decided to combine my love of fabrics, graphic patterns and painting into a single dynamic and colourful artwork that could express the wide spectrum of human emotions.

magpie: What’s your signature style? The mix of colour on monochrome hints that you start with a digital print and work on that – is that right? 

KB: I always wanted to have a style that I could express myself through, and which was truly unique to me. My style also originates from my desire to combine the classic idea of sketching and drawing with modern mixed media lines to form multi layered paintings. I wanted my work to be complex in its simplicity and embody the love I have for creation and art.

The whole idea was to have silhouettes in blacks, whites and greys with dynamic patterns and expressive colours, to depict a wide spectrum of emotions, mainly focusing on joy and freedom. I do start by drawing a sketch of what I have in mind and taking it from there to the canvas.

magpie: Where do you see the value of NFTs? 

KB: NFTs are basically smart contracts produced (or minted) in the blockchain. NFTs directly address the concerns of scarcity and authenticity that buyers and collectors of physical art have when it comes to acquiring digital art. This helps in maintaining an unquestionable proof of ownership and provenance that ensures that original artworks and their owners are always identifiable via the blockchain.

Since buying NFTs and digital art is still a relatively new concept, I wanted to be an early adopter and integrate the technology in all my work – not just be able to sell digital artworks as NFTs.

Another area where NFTs will play an important role, is the certification of authenticity and proof of ownership. Basically, all my private commissions, original paintings, limited edition giclée on canvas will now be issued with an NFT as a certificate of authenticity in addition to the usual sealed certificate of authenticity.

NFTs will definitely level the playing field for digital artists, whose artwork will now be considered seriously in the art market, since the NFT has solved the problem of ownership. With the growing number of NFT sales that are being reported, this will surely have a continuing impact.

magpie: What platforms are you using to sell your NFT art?

KB: I am using OpenSea and to sell my digital art as NFTs, but I am sure in the near future I will be on other platforms as well. I like Foundation because it is more creator-friendly – it is not as large as OpenSea, where your presence can be diluted. Foundation is by invitation only and the sale process is well done in a chronological auction.

I have been able to sell my NFT art at the same price point as my traditional canvas paintings, but the added advantage that NFTs have a built-in royalty collection system – every time my digital art is resold, I will automatically collect a creators royalty.

  • Update: Bechara’s first NFT piece Satochi Nakamoto (right), was auctioned off for 1.10 ETH ($1,950) on Foundation.App; a second piece, Byzantine General’s Shield then sold for 3 ETH ($5,324) to a prominent NFT collector.

magpie: Are you selling multiples or unique pieces?

KB: So far, I only released unique art pieces 1 of 1. As part of the Beauty in Diversity and DeFi series I will be preparing a limited-edition release (or drop as it is referred to in this beautiful ecosystem) of redeemable artworks to be sold as NFTs that contain a redeemable option for a physical signed painting.

magpie: You are the first female Arab artist to bring NFT art to the region. What does that mean to you personally?

KB: The real race for me is how fast we can have more artists and collectors adopt this technology. As proud as I am of the achievement, I like to see it as paving the way for other female Arab artists who would like to enter the digital realm with their own creations. I hope in we will be seeing a lot more NFT art being produced and sold from artists in this region and traditional artists embracing the technology in creating immutable provenance for their paintings.

Words: Liz Totton

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