The Rise of NFTs
Lethabo Huma, Safe Haven, part of the TIMEpiece collection with TIME magazine.
Story first published in Destiny magazine, issue 2, 2022
Ever since the NFT work of art Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, a collage consisting of 5,000 images by the artist Beeple, sold for an astonishing $69.3 million at Christie’s in March last year, NFTs have been on an unstoppable rise.
Non-Fungible-Tokens (NFTs) are part of the Ethereum blockchain. They provide digital artists with a mechanism to package their art so they can trade it and digitally authenticate it. The information is stored online and protected with blockchain coding.
Art can be tokenised but so can music tracks, pieces of text, apps, files or even actual physical objects. A spy pen-gun owned by anti-apartheid activist Oliver Tambo was recently auctioned as a non-fungible token to raise funds for a heritage site commemorating South Africa's struggle for democracy.
What makes NFTs so special and attractive to artists and other creators is that they cannot be forged. They cannot be replaced with anything else. The artist and all subsequent owners form part of the blockchain. This explains why in some instances the list of owners, previous and current, is credited to a specific artwork. It’s standard practice for collectors to use avatars and pseudonyms.
The digital proof of ownership is absolutely central to the medium. It also allows artists to enable a feature that guarantees they get a royalty on each and every sale. Because NFTs must change hands to prove their value, this can be a very profitable market for artists, many of whom in this space are very young.
A new generation of crypto millionaires has supported the meteoric rise of the NFT market. They are likely to be young and they have made a fortune in the crypto world. Now they are looking at ways to spend it in a way that validates its future.
MetaKovan, the successful bidder of the Beeple’s NFT at Christie’s (which to date remains the world's most expensive non-fungible-tokens artwork), said that the reason why he collects is that as a crypto investor, he spends most of his time in the Metaverse (read crypto world) and like any of us who hang pictures on our walls, he felt the need to enhance his virtual environment.
That said, it’s a very speculative market too which helps explain some of the stratospheric figures. Before acquiring Beeple’s Everydays, MetaKovan, who owns the fund Metapurse, released onto the market the B20 token. Each B20 includes fractions of crypto real estate, of a virtual museum, of another Beeple’s artwork and of a piece of music by Justin Blau, aka 3LAU. Metapurse’s acquisition of Everydays for $69.3 million instantly boosted the value of the B20.
Collectors mostly search for NFTs in specialist marketplaces. Leading players include OpenSea, Rarible and Nifty Gateway. Here in South Africa, Latitudes, which is an online art platform promoting and selling contemporary African art, is well positioned to become ‘the first African marketplace for art-focused NFTs’. Latitudes has partnered with platform Momint who is to provide the technology.
Latitudes pre-launched its NFT project in a collaboration with L’MAD Collection. They presented a summer collection of limited-edition silk scarves by eight South African artists who work in traditional mediums, including Io Makandal, Shakil Solanki and Pebofatso Mokoena. Latitudes offered an accompanying NFT with the first 25 editions of each scarf purchased via their site, which serves as a certificate of authenticity for the scarf.
Pebofatso Mokoena, scarf for Latitudes x L'MAD. The scarf comes with an NFT, which serves as a certificate of authenticity.
Nonfungible.com tracks the NFT market globally and recorded $250 million worth of sales for the year 2020. According to the latest Hiscox Online Art Trade Report, sales of NFTs achieved $3.5 billion in the first three quarters of 2021. No wonder everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon.
What happened at Christie’s with Beeple was in fact an important moment. It created a bridge between the real and the crypto worlds and catapulted NFTs into the mainstream - or at least into the more traditional segment of the art market. All major international auction houses, Christie’s but also Sotheby’s and Phillips, got into the action and rapidly pivoted to host NFT art sales.
Sotheby’s staged Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale, which showcased both commissioned and existing NFTs. The auction included the first NFT ever minted, Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, which was tokenized back in 2014 during a hackathon and which represents a pixelated octagon that keeps changing colour. It sold for $ 1 472 000.
Things seem to be happening quickly. From one day to the next, we’re seeing NFTs everywhere, including at art fairs. In December, Art Basel Miami, which held its first physical iteration since the pandemic, hosted an interactive NFT exhibition in collaboration with the open source blockchain Tezos. Visitors could create an AI self-portrait of themselves and mint it as a take-away NFT.
A number of smaller art fairs that are focused on contemporary African art have also been fast at the uptake. 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place physically in London last November and presented an exhibition of NFT artworks by the Nigerian artist Osinachi (@Osinachi). This was paired with the sale of five of his artworks at Christie’s. One piece, Man in a Pool III, went for a cool £50 000.
Osinachi, who is 29, got into NFTs four years ago. Prior to that, he was a librarian at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He uses Microsoft Office, a very basic technology, to create his artworks. The one, Becoming Sochukwuma, shows a black dancer in a tutu made of African fabric gyrating on screen and sold for a hefty $80 000.
Osinachi recently co-curated ‘Reloading…’, an exhibition of NFTs by African artists for Art X Lagos, the first art fair in West Africa to present NFTs. Artists included the Rwandan MDD Arts (@MMD_arts), Lebanese-Senegalese Linda Dounia Rebeiz (@Sandwyrmdance) and South African Rendani Nemakhavhani (@prsdnthoney).
Another South African artist, Lethabo Huma (@lethabohuma), started her career using traditional mediums before discovering digital art and more recently NFTs. Her work is available on SuperRare and has been selected for sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. She was also invited to create the work Safe Haven for the TIMEPieces Collection, a new NFT community initiative from Time magazine.
Speaking about her series of flowers, My Happy Place, Huma says ‘they are about showing gratitude to the collectors and people who have supported me and bought my work in the NFT space. The concept is about how my grandmother’s garden inspired my creativity and showed me my gift.’ Huma’s inspiration remains deeply rooted in the physical world.