NFT Art Crypto

A month before the May collapse of Terra Luna, Shavonne Wong – one of the bona fide NFT stars from Singapore – sold a collection of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to a global fanbase in just 1 minute.

The project, titled By Proxy, was in collaboration with hot young photographer Lenne Chai. It showed 60 images of a digitally sculpted schoolgirl coming of age against familiar local backdrops. Each NFT was priced at 1.25 Eth (approximately US$3,500), bringing the sales tally to 75 Eth (or over US$200,000). 

Its success was no doubt helped by the fact that Wong had achieved minor celebrity status after movie star Idris Elba purchased his first 3 NFTs from her LGBTQ-friendly series Love Is Love, which depicted people of different races, ages and sexual orientations sharing a tender moment.

But then TerraUSD started collapsing in the first week of May 2022, wiping out more than US$18 billion from the market. And Wong has not released anything new since. Data website NonFungible notes that NFT sales have fallen by more than 90 per cent from its daily high of 225,000 in September 2021.

Wong says: “Instead of watching the ups and downs of the market, I’ve been honing my skills and getting better at 3D art. I know that whatever happens, I’m acquiring skills that would be useful should I ever need to take on a commercial job.”

At NFT Asia, a community of over 3,000 NFT artists and collectors on the social platform Discord, there have been confessions by members of being badly burnt by the crypto crash. One member spoke of giving up altogether. Another spoke of suicide attempts because of the crash. (Stories of suicidal behaviour are not uncommon.)

But, like Wong, most NFT creatives are taking the bad news in their stride because “we ultimately believe in the underlying technology and the opportunities it’s given us in creating and selling art”, says Wong. 

(Related: These new NFT platforms are like digital art galleries)

How NFT art has changed the rules

Before the advent of NFTs 1 year ago, many artists had been frustrated that the elitist contemporary art market is not always welcoming towards certain types of art, such as graphic design and digital art. Artists often need to be acknowledged by museums, galleries, curators, critics and collectors before they can participate in art fairs and museum shows. 

NFTs have changed many of those rules: Previously ignored artists have quickly gained global recognition through exposure on various NFT trading platforms such as OpenSea and Rarible. Top art fairs such as Art Basel have carved out spaces for NFT showcases. Some creatives have been able to leave their full-time agency jobs to create NFTs full-time. 

These artists are not about to turn their backs on the technology that has given them a solid source of income in the past year.

Speak Cryptic, one of the first Singaporeans to sell an NFT online, was already a well-known contemporary artist before he started selling NFTs. The artist, whose real name is Farizwan Fajari, says: “A lot of us are now taking a step back to figure out what to do. Do we jump ship? Do we abandon the space? Would it be a total waste if we’d spent a year or more being heavily invested in NFTs?

“Some of us have found a lot of success creating NFTs while we were stuck at home during the pandemic. We’d managed to leverage on that success and get other commissions not related to NFTs. With most restrictions being lifted now, those kinds of opportunities have only increased.”

Speak Cryptic’s series of 50 avatars titled Current Surface sold well after famous crypto artist XCopy purchased the first avatar. But staying visible in the crypto space requires a lot of online engagement on Twitter and Discord where the NFT community lives and breathes – and SpeakCryptic, who identifies himself first and foremost as a contemporary artist, is using the market lull to return to his first love, painting.

(Related: An art expert’s take on NFT art and the nascent digital marketspace)

Flight to quality in the NFT art world

Earlier this year, Chong Huai Seng, who co-founded private art space The Culture Story, found success selling the NFTs of digital artist Jonathan Leong aka ZXEROKOOL. 

The former investment banker says that, in the current market conditions, there is a flight to quality: “Collectors have become much more selective about which NFTs to collect. They are much more inclined to purchase something that has actual relevance to art history.

“For example, a recent project that worked was Unit London gallery’s high-quality digital reproduction of Italian masterpieces by Da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio and others, which were created in collaboration with the museums that own these masterpieces.

“These works will never leave these museums. So to be able to get a high-resolution digital reproduction approved by the museums, created in the exact same proportions, and with a special frame to hang them, is rare. These NFTs are as close as you’ll ever get to the real thing.

“So I think there will always be demand for NFTs that are unique, relevant and conceptually appealing.”

Jonathan Liu, a photographer and founding member of NFT Asia, shares these sentiments: “We’re in a bear market now, and the number of collectors willing to buy NFTs have gone down. What that means is that you have to be ‘extra worth it’ as an artist for collectors to want your work. To put it in a Singaporean context, you have to be the best chicken rice stall for people to pay S$8 or more for your chicken rice.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the headlines these days have focused on the so-called blue-chip ‘artworks’ like Bored Apes, which people bought for 150 Eth but are now selling for 85 Eth. These are illiquid, highly risky assets… The fact is, there are many independent artists out there who are still making strong work and selling them at reasonable prices – and finding buyers.”

NFT Asia recently launched the NFT Asia Fundraiser 2022 where works by artists such as Bluugu, Noealz and Stw.wts had no trouble attracting buyers with prices no higher than 5 Eth. The money raised will fund NFT Asia members’ trip to NFT.NYC, a global NFT conference in New York City, where NFT Asia has partnered Superchief Gallery to showcase the NFTs of approximately 22 Asian artists.

Reasons for optimism for NFT art

TZ APAC, the Asia-based blockchain adoption entity supporting the Tezos ecosystem, is not stinting on its efforts to promote NFTs. At Art Basel Hong Kong, which was held from May 27 to 29, it rented a sizeable exhibition space to showcase the NFT and generative art of 20 artists. They include Singapore’s Yeoh Shih Yun, who says that the event “points to the growing legitimacy of the medium… beyond crypto circles and social media”.

David Tng, head of growth at TZ APAC, says: “For those of us who’ve been in the broader blockchain industry for a long time, the market movements we’ve seen in recent weeks simply aren’t new. Let’s not forget that NFTs have been around for quite some time — long before the oft-cited US$69 million Beeple auction at Christie’s… So we remain confident in the future of NFTs, its growth and its ability to empower artists and creatives across the globe, as it redefines notions of ownership and monetisation.”

Despite the optimism, more hurdles might lie in the path of NFT creatives. At the Asia Tech x Singapore Summit in May, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a government pilot project in financial asset tokenisation, but declared: “Retail investors especially should steer clear of cryptocurrencies. We cannot emphasise this enough.”

His remarks echo previous warnings from the Monetary Authority of Singapore to the general public against cryptocurrency and hint at moves towards greater regulation of the crypto space.

NFT Asia co-founder Liu says: “I know that policymakers understand crypto at the macro level, but they may not understand crypto in terms of how it affects independent artists and small vendors, and how we are using crypto to actually make a living from NFTs… I hope these future regulations don’t make us jump through hoops just to cash out S$20 from the sale of an NFT, because that’s just going to kill the creative spirit.”  

(Related: What Audrey Lim learned from dabbling in Web 3.0)

Main photo credit: Photography Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP©

This article was originally published with the title ‘As crypto falters, NFT creators take cover’ in The Business Times.