Indigenous artists from East Arnhem Land venture into the billion dollar digital NFT market

Indigenous Yolngu artists from the remote region of Arnhem Land are known around the world for their innovative, award-winning works, making connections with land and sea.

And for the first time, they venture into the digital world, with a group of artists making and selling NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

The NFT phenomenon has seen billions of dollars flow in the exchange of digital photos, videos and sounds.

When investors floated the prospect of entering the growing market, Yirrkala-based artist Yolngu Ishmael Marika was intrigued.

Yolngu artists are among Australia’s most famous.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

While some of the world’s best-selling NFTs are pixelated images, Yirrkala’s objects are created by scanning physical works, including drawings and bark paintings.

The individual pieces are photographed using an infrared camera device before being transformed into moving digital works.

How do NFTs work?

If you’ve heard of NFTs but still don’t understand them, you’re not alone.

The digital asset is created using the same technology as cryptocurrency. However, that’s where the similarities end.

A copy of CryptoPunk #7804, one of the best-selling NFTs of all time.
CryptoPunk #7804 sold for the equivalent of over $10 million.(Provided: Open Sea)

Cryptocurrency is similar to cash in that it is fungible and can be exchanged for each other. For example, five $1 coins can be exchanged for one $5 bill.

NFTs are non-fungible due to the unique digital signature attached to each during its authentication process, known as minting.

This authentication is then attached to the digital asset, making it a one-of-a-kind product.

The digital file can be copied, but not the unique digital signature.

Technology has created a new form of ownership and therefore a new market.

While NFTs have been around for a few years, the world started taking notice last year when a single piece of digital art by American digital artist Beeple sold for nearly $100 million.

The digital market reached a value of around $56 billion last year.

An offer too good to refuse

Artist Yolngu Wukun Wanambi’s bark paintings have traveled to all corners of the world and are now also made into digital models to be sold online as NFTs.

A man wearing a T-shirt pointing and talking while sitting on the beach.
Wukun Wanambi hopes his NFTs can help promote Yolngu culture.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Artists from the Buku-Larngaay Mulka Arts Center in Yirrkala are funded by venture capitalist Mark Carnegie to create NFTs.

The art center‘s Mulka Project technical director, Joseph Brady, said this could lead to more physical works being purchased by Yolngu, so they can remain in the community.

“If enough of them are sold, Mulka’s share will go towards buying this piece for the museum here,” he said.

“Thus, the work will stay here in the museum within the community.”

Mulka Center project manager Joseph Brady sits and smiles at the camera.
Joseph Brady says profits from artists’ NFTs can be invested in keeping more art in the community.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

Venture capitalist Mark Carnegie believes it is one of the first such NFT art collectives in Australia.

“What I wanted to try to do was take a series of early-career artists, expose them to this space, and see if there was some kind of creative spark that happened,” he said. he declared.

Are NFTs bad for the planet?

From his motorhome on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, software engineer Geoff Huntley staged a rebellion against the NFT movement.

He made global headlines after creating a website with thousands of copies of the digital assets, just without their authenticating signature, where they could be downloaded for free.

He doubts it’s another online trend and says many people don’t know what they’re buying.

“Why would I spend a million dollars on an NFT or a few million dollars on NFTs because, it’s right there. I can see the image on my phone, I can just take a screenshot of it “, did he declare.

A serious looking man in a T-shirt standing on a beach in South Australia.
Geoff Huntley is a critic of NFTs.(Provided: Carl Saville)

“What they’re buying is just a link or instructions to an artwork. And that artwork isn’t unique. It’s easily replicable.”

Mr Huntley is part of a growing group of critics who believe NFTs come at a huge environmental cost, as well as the cryptocurrencies used to buy them, due to the energy used to create and store them.

“And that explains why are we even doing this? The power consumption here is through the roof,” he said.

Sharing Yolngu culture

While it’s unclear whether NFTs could become a long-term financial stream for indigenous communities, Ishmael Marika thinks it’s worth it.

A man wearing a t-shirt and shorts sitting and drawing on a trestle table outside a building.
Ishmael Marika is an accomplished Yolngu artist.(ABC News: Hamish Harty)

At least the artist hopes that creating NFTs from his physical art will help guard against tampering and potentially become another channel to share his stories with the world.

“There are songs [that have] passed down from the ancestors, passed down to the great-great-grandfathers, to the, you know, to the grandfathers, to the fathers and to us,” he said.

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