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Oct 04, 2022
Emerging artists in the Caribbean are harnessing NFT technology to showcase their region and vibrant creations — and also earn a living — even as banks are slow to adapt. Will creatives of the future get paid in crypto only?
– with reporting by Kate Chappell from Kingston, Jamaica
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Whether in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago or beyond, young artists from the Caribbean are now drawing inspiration from their colorful surroundings and then transferring their work to virtual spaces, where they sell it for cryptocurrency.
“Anyone, anywhere in the world can mint an artwork to the blockchain, and anyone, anywhere else in the world can buy that,” says Nicholas Huggins, artist and founder of the Trinidad and Tobago-based design agency Backyard Design Co.
Around the world, established and emerging artists have turned to virtual venues to publicize and sell their creations, with some works selling in the millions. So far, Huggins has minted 136 creations as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and sold all but two.
This technology lends itself to creative works because every NFT is unique and can be rendered as a digital representation of a piece of art. That artwork can then be “minted” on a blockchain. (A blockchain is like an enormous database, within which computers communicate with one another to authenticate transactions.) Those who purchase such NFTs receive a digital token and an associated unique digital file — which could be an image file, or even an audio file if the art in question is music. In some cases, collectors also receive other benefits, such as a physical piece of art.
At first blush, it might be hard to understand why collectors would want to own digital art. If you can’t hang a painting in your home, what use is it? But such works become valuable for the same reason any piece of art, or any collectible item, becomes valuable: because people want to buy it.
For this reason, NFTs allow artists to capitalize on their network and community, says Bonito Thompson, a Kingston-based artist who goes by the name of Don Dada. Since art becomes ever more valuable as more people compete to buy it, artists who engage their personal network in publicizing, acquiring and even trading their NFTs can create a buzz. What’s more, because digital art is available to any collector regardless of location, artists can tap into a worldwide community of supporters.
Perhaps contrary to what many people think of when they imagine digital art, Thompson says, “What drives the NFT space is community, connection and people bonding.”
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Consulting firm SkyQuest estimates that the global NFT market will be worth $122 billion by 2028. The Caribbean will have a piece of that pie, as some enterprising artists have already found a way to sell enough work to support themselves solely via cryptocurrency.
Zoe Osborne is a Toronto-based, Barbadian artist and interior designer whose digital, animated work is inspired by nostalgia for her home island. She sells her art for the cryptocurrency Ethereum and, so far, is able to support herself this way.
The lack of confining borders also appeals to her. Blockchain technology, she says, “allows you to have a global reach and you are on par with everyone else in the world.”
Once artists conceptualize and create their work, they mint it to the blockchain, which means they use a digital wallet to pay a fee to list their digital creations. The blockchain, which serves as a record of transactions and information, has created what people are calling Web3, an internet that is relatively free from the control of behemoths like Amazon, Google and Apple. Users deal directly with one another, rather than a multinational interface. What’s more, all transactions on the blockchain are observable by anyone at any time.
There are several different blockchains; Ethereum is the most widely used for NFTs. Huggins uses Ethereum. He sold his first piece almost a year ago for .22ETH, or about $900 at that time. “I did it more as an experiment, but then randomly someone bought the piece.” Like his peers, Huggins’ work is bright, graphic and celebrates the vibrancy of the Caribbean, with images featuring street-side fruit vendors and stark lines of infrastructure.
Yet even as Huggins and Osborne are enjoying distinct success with blockchain technology, Caribbean artists face certain barriers that are particular to their location. The region is burgeoning with potential, says Osborne, but the lack of ability to convert cryptocurrency into local currency through the local banking system is a problem.
“If that can be fixed, it would be a great opportunity,” she says, noting that there are artists who are excited about the potential but are “only partially embracing it” because it is difficult to convert crypto into local cash.
Andrea Dempster Chung, co-founder and executive director of Kingston Creative, a nonprofit arts organization aimed at enabling Caribbean creatives to succeed, agreed that barriers remain.
“There is a general technology knowledge gap, compounded by limited data/online access in the region and difficulty registering on U.S.-based banking/payment platforms,” she told OZY by email. For those reasons, she explained, only a handful of Caribbean artists have taken the leap into the NFT space, and these artists must find a “workaround” to get payments into their local bank accounts.
But perhaps local banking and governance systems will find a way to bridge this gap. Barbados, for one, appears poised to embrace the virtual world. Prime Minister Mia Mottley appeared at last year’s opening of an NFT exhibit by Caribbean culture and history group Mahogany Culture.
The Jamaican artist Bonito Thompson creates images inspired by dancehall culture that incorporate augmented reality. In 2021, through the live NFT auction platform Foundation, he minted 10 works of art that sold out in six weeks. Bonito has enormous aspirations, telling OZY that he is hard at work, seeking recognition as “one of the best artists of modern time.” For him, using NFTs was an easy transition. “I was looking for ways to make my work stand out. It was a natural flow, and it started blowing up. In terms of the NFT space in the Caribbean, I can see it growing the more the banking system makes it easier to get people onboarded,” he says.
NFTs also represent opportunities for creatives beyond the visual arts. Roshaun Clarke, a Jamaican dancehall musician who goes by the artist name Bay-C, told OZY via text message that, in April 2021, he became the first reggae artist to mint a musical NFT. For Clarke, the benefits of using NFTs include not only the income stream but also the elimination of a middle man between him and his audience. NFTs are also a firmer way to authenticate ownership of content, he says.
Guarding intellectual property is a concern for these artists. Some NFT communities appear to be Caribbean-based but are not in reality, says Dempster Chung of Kingston Creative. “This leads one to raise questions around cultural appropriation,” she said. Given challenges with the banking sector, “the delay in authentic Caribbean artists entering the space leaves a gap where non-Caribbean entities can profit from the culture,” she explained. She envisions a future in which still more Caribbean creatives are aware of cutting-edge technology so they can make the best decisions for their creative futures.
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