Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Life-size murals, original installations and all colors on the canvas: before the COVID-19 pandemic closes art and performance spaces in March 2020, art festivals and city galleries Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur and George Town offered a lifeline, and inspiration, to artists across the country.
But with the disruptions of the past 20 months, many have struggled to survive as full-time âphysicalâ artists and have been forced out of their comfort zone.
Some have ventured into the emerging new world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrency.
NFTs are unique digital assets designed to represent ownership of a virtual object: unlike Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, NFTs cannot be traded like with other NFTs, making them rare and increasing their value. value.
This concept applies perfectly to the art collection and sparked an unprecedented trend in digital consumerism: in March, American digital artist Mike Winklemann, known as Beeple, sold an NFT of his Works Everydays: The First 5000 Days for a staggering $ 69 million via prominent UK auction house Christie’s.
In Malaysia, the idea of ââNFT art incubated as a fun hobby for graduates in design, multimedia, engineering and architecture. It was popularized by Filamen, a collective of multidisciplinary digital creators based in Kuala Lumpur who launched the Seni Kripto (âCryptoartâ in Malay) exhibition in April 2021 in their physical space Digital Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Malaya.
The Malaysian art scene quickly seized the potential of NFTs, launching the first Crypto Art Week in July and establishing Pentas.io, the first local NFT marketplace. It has already earned some local artists the cryptocurrency equivalent of millions of Malaysian ringgits.
New art concept
âNFT in Malaysia has experienced significant growth over the past year,â AKA stan Munira Hamzah (Moon) of Malaysia NFT told Al Jazeera Mumu. This new non-profit organization and digital gallery is supporting Malaysian artists on the NFT scene, raising funds and providing educational materials and peer support to empower and elevate Malaysian art on the global stage.
âEarlier in the year, you could probably count the number of Malaysian performers actively hitting and selling NFTs on one side. That number has steadily increased to hundreds over several months, and now we are probably in the thousands, âMoon said.
NFT artwork by Malaysian artists spans the gamut of 3D animations, internet memes, and illustrations inspired by the multi-ethnic culture of the Southeast Asian nation.
Moon says the growth of the NFT scene has changed the way artists in Malaysia traditionally make a living – from commissioned artwork – offering “a newfound confidence as well as a source of income that doesn’t rely on customer demands, but rather on what artists want to achieve personally and creatively â.
For some of them, NFTs brought joy back to art.
“It gives me the opportunity to expand my creativity, to display [my work] as I wish, track copyright ownership and keep records of creation, âPenang-based artist Kenny Ng told Al Jazeera.
For others, NFTs have given a tangible opportunity to make staggering profits in Ether, the cryptocurrency that is Ethereum’s main asset, the decentralized and open source blockchain with smart contract functionality where NFTs are traded. .
Earlier in September, Kuala Lumpur-based graffiti artist Abdul Hafiz Abdul Rahman, better known as Katun, made headlines for selling two of his NFT collections in less than 24 hours for 127.6 ETH – l equivalent of 1.6 million Malaysian ringgits ($ 400,000). It was the most expensive NFT bundle ever sold by a Malaysian artist in a single release.
âIt’s very clear to see that, if done right, the money earned can really make a difference for any Southeast Asian artist, as crypto is growing exponentially every day,â Katun said. at Al Jazeera.
But even though NFT looks like a get-rich-quick scheme, at least in Malaysia, it has grown into a more progressive and useful community. For example, Katun founded 4 Stages, a digital platform with the aim of bringing together artists from Southeast Asia.
âThere are so many talented artists here with not enough exposure to the rest of the world,â Katun told Al Jazeera, adding that NFT’s rapid growth and global reach will be key to propelling both presence and the monetary gains of Malaysian artists. well beyond the geographic and economic constraints of the country’s small physical art market.
Skeletons in the closet
The benefits of using NFT and cryptocurrency are evident in a developing region where artists abound, but artistic spaces and freedom of expression are limited.
The catch, however, is that these digital works of art are paid for with cryptocurrencies, which mining is now considered one of the most carbon-polluting businesses in the world.
In other words, many websites helping artists sell NFT artwork, such as the popular OpenSea, are based on the Ethereum blockchain, which is very green by design.
According to research by digital artist Memo Akten published on the CryptoArt.wtf site, “selling a single piece of art on Ethereum has a carbon footprint starting at around 100 KgCO2, which is equivalent to a flight of one hour.”
âI was hesitant at first, but then I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people, especially technologists, who really understand blockchain, and then my perspective changed,â Red Hong Yi said, Kuala Lumpur based artist known as Red. , told Al Jazeera.
Originally from Kota Kinabalu in the Borneo state of Sabah, Red has established herself internationally by creating portraits of Chinese celebrities, including Ai Weiwei and Jackie Chan, which she has made with a selection of everyday objects. ranging from used tea bags to packets of chopsticks, eggshells and socks.
His striking work, Climate is Everything, is the result of creating and engraving a world map made up of 50,000 green-tipped matches stuck on a whiteboard.
Few expected that with such a background even Red would want to try NFT technology, but she debuted earlier this year with Doge to the Moon – a fake banknote that celebrates and pokes fun at. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s idea to fund the upcoming launch. of the Doge-1 satellite entirely with the DOGE coin, a fictitious cryptocurrency whose mascot is a Shiba Inu dog.
Doge to the Moon was minted and auctioned on the Binance NFT marketplace for two weeks, with a maximum bid of 36.3 ETH (around 320,000 Malaysian ringgit ($ 75,500). The sale helped Red co -organize 1000 Tiny Artworks, a physical exhibition of works of art by 100 Malaysian artists to be held in Kuala Lumpur between December 17th and 19th.
Doge to the Moon is also part of Red’s latest NFT project, Memebank, a fictitious central bank with six banknotes inspired by the Chinese yuan, US dollar, Japanese yen, British pound, Singapore dollar and Malaysian ringgit, and addresses the rather complex question of “How economists have warned of the dangers of inflation when central banks print money continuously,” Red told Al Jazeera.
Unlike most other NFT projects, Memebank isn’t just a digital product. Each buyer receives a 1/1 canvas print of the artwork and their own physical copper plate of the chosen banknote, allowing them to print as many copies as they want.
Lower the carbon volume
One reason to believe in the art of NFT is that this digital space is changing rapidly, with the creation of new low-power blockchains like Tezos, which runs on a system called âProof-of-Stakeâ (Pos), and is expected to drastically reduce the current carbon effects of DFTs. “[Tezos] is basically the same as everyday use of your PC (stake nodes), âKatun said.
âPeople will not stop taking flights even if planes have a carbon footprint, because that solves the problems of time and distance. Blockchain, the technology supporting cryptocurrency and NFTs, solves trust issues by providing transparency, so we don’t need a middleman during the transaction. It gives back control to the majority. The current system is in the hands of a few, âKuala Lumpur-based Sabahan Blockchain lawyer and trainer Ivy Fung told Al Jazeera.
âMany researchers are working on [ways of] reduce energy consumption, and some are already being implemented, for example, by using a more energy-efficient mechanism, the Pos, where trust is built on the promised stake, rather than on the computing power that consumes lot of energy.
What remains uncertain is whether NFT art will be able to stand out once the novelty wears off. After all, the Rules of Success are in many ways similar to the traditional route of art gallery exhibitions and hard-to-break collector’s markets.
âIt’s like every minute that a new NFT is created and uploaded,â Kenny Ng told Al Jazeera. “[Success still] really depends on the effort of the artists themselves to promote themselves and become visible.