In this week’s podcast episode, The Ownership Economy, we explore web3 in the African context. For reasons explored in the episode - decentralization and the permissionless nature of public blockchains, new paradigms and economic models, tools like NFTs, and institutions like DAOs - we believe that web3 can have a significant impact in African markets especially.
But as with any nascent technology, figuring out the so-called killer app requires experimentation. If this is truly an opportunity to build and create new paradigms, for these new structures to benefit previously excluded or marginalized groups requires participation, as well. And every new experiment is an opportunity to onboard more curious people into the crypto ecosystem.
This potential is especially exciting for African artists, in particular. Whereas the gatekeepers of the art world have had a say in not only who gets to participate, but what is considered valuable, the permissionless and democratized nature of web3 is a compelling alternative.
The big question on the value of art, and NFTs in particular, isn’t necessarily whether or not they have value, but who gets to decide.
One African digital artist finding success in the NFT space is the Dakar-based Linda Dounia. An artist and product designer - whose past employers include African Leadership University, Eneza Education and IDEO.org, and a founding member of Cyber Baat, a decentralized autonomous collective of African descent on the blockchain - Linda saw NFTs as an opportunity to not only combine design and technology in the production of her artworks but to explore the questions of value and hegemony in the African context.
And in commemoration of this week's episode on the ownership economy, we’ve partnered with Linda to mint a collection of AI-generated artwork to symbolize all that we’re exploring about value and new paradigms - that creativity has value and that African creativity, in particular, has value.
The collection, Dawn of Bugs, is available at reserve auction on Foundation.
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For more on AI and generative art, the perception of value, and what tools like NFTs mean for African creators, here is our interview with Linda.
You’ve called this collection “Dawn of Bugs”, and many of your other AI work has a bug theme. What’s the story there?
LD: Most of my AI practice is inspired by science fiction. When I discovered I could collaborate with GANs (generative adversarial networks) to build new work, I felt like I was living in the future already. So the idea for the bugs came from Frank Herbert’s Dune. When I first read the trilogy, I felt seen. I realized that the analogy of a single planet powering an entire universe with a natural resource made by a giant bug felt very close to home. Since the 14th century, the plundering of the African continent is what powered the apogée of most imperial powers - first with manpower, then natural resources, and now through a combination of crippling debt, win-lose deals, and unfavorable trading agreements. I know Frank Herbert was influenced by the colonial exploitation of the Middle East for oil when writing Dune - I don’t think we’re far off in terms of what’s been happening on the continent at a much larger scale.
Editor's note: check out more of Linda’s past NFT work here.
There are two questions of value we’re addressing here - the perception of value of digital art and of the value of African art, or art by Africans. What has your experience been in the “traditional” art world as compared to the web3 art world?
LD: The avenues for African artists who make digital work barely existed before NFTs, especially for artists based on the continent who didn’t attend prestigious art schools or didn’t have gallery representation. I fell squarely into this category. I came close once to making an entrance into the traditional art world by being shortlisted for a residency at the Cité des Arts in Paris, but even if I had made it in, I would have to leave my job and my family simply couldn’t afford this level of financial investment. In addition, there would be no guarantee that investing in this residency would result in propelling me into a financially sustainable career in the art world. I can count with one hand the internationally acclaimed women artists from Africa that I know., living and working in Africa. That’s one way to answer this question.
Discourse around the value of digital art has been happening in the global north since the 1980s, but NFTs are the first solution that has enabled digital artists to gain recognition for their work and commercialize it at scale. It was hard enough for artists from the global north, now imagine what it must have been like for African digital artists. The value of African art (I am yet to convince that this is even a defendable category) has almost always been decided outside of Africa. Art criticism (the appraisal, discussion, and evaluation of art) obtained its modern form in the 18th century. It’s one of the late legacies of the Age of Enlightenment, which is also the epoch that produced the idea that Western nations were, by their own evaluation, culturally/morally/aesthetically superior to non-Western nations came to be justified. Western became synonymous with civilized while non-Western was relegated to the realms of barbarism, savagery, primitivism, etc. These ideas have prevailed until recently - decolonizing the art world has become a prominent debate in traditional art. The idea that we might be evaluating art from the African continent using the wrong canons is being asked in my lifetime. I am just happy it’s being asked, finally.
Ed: Read more from Linda on the promise of web3 for African digital artists.
We’re minting generative art, which is of particular interest for NFT collectors, as evidenced by the success of platforms like Artblocks, and the market value of collections like Tyler Hobbs’ Fidenza. What is generative art and why is it valuable?
LD: I was recently chatting about this with a friend who creates generative art using TouchDesigner - a visual programming language, which is one of the many ways to create generative art - and we were discussing how generative art was impacted by NFTs. Generative art itself has a very broad definition: “art that in whole or in part has been created with the use of an autonomous system”’. So art made using a scripting or a node-based visual programming language or GANs all technically counts as generative art. However, when NFTs came into the picture, with projects like Artblocks, generative art became associated with the mechanic of uploading code that allows people to generate a different visual output every time they mint an NFT. The value then becomes both the final artwork upon minting the NFT and also the ledger data of the NFT itself - which reflects each iteration of the initial code.
Ed: For more on generative art, I recommend Tyler Hobbs’ essay, The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art.
What does your process of creating AI-generated art look like?
LD: I think it’s different for everyone. I personally work with GANs that I train using databases of artworks from my acrylic practice. I play around with the types of GAN, the size and focus of the database, and sometimes I also like to combine GANs. The general idea though is fairly simple - GANs are essentially intelligent systems that are capable of learning and re-learning based on inputs they are given. The larger and more homogeneous the database, the better they’re able to learn. They are then able to give evidence of their learning in the form of paintings of their own. Now that basic principle can be messed with in many ways. What I have found is that GANs are fairly bad at learning to paint abstract expressionism. That challenge is what excites me though.
My impression of the NFT space is that its primary collectors are a cohort of “crypto-rich” folks who aren’t necessarily art collectors, in the traditional sense, but that traditional art collectors are increasingly getting involved in the NFT space. And in the African context, while there may be a lot of crypto-enthusiasts, there is still an opportunity to bridge the gap and convert these people into supporters of African creators.
Does that comport with your experience of the space as an NFT artist? What is the general profile of your collectors? And what else would you like to see happening in the African context?
LD: I would agree with your assessment. My collector base is a mix of anonymous collectors who generally fit the crypto-rich category you describe, more established artists or peers who also collect NFTs, and more recently, collectors from the traditional art world who are turning to NFTs. I have been interested in getting more collectors from the continent for myself, as well as for the artists collective I co-founded, Cyber Baat. We operate on-chain as a DAO and are building a collector club to provide an easy way for collectors interested in art by artists of African descent. We understand not many collectors want to jump on the Twitter bandwagon or have the time to do their own research into which African artists to collect from - so we want to provide avenues to do this through our DAO. Our artists are some of the highest-earning and most acclaimed artists from Africa in the NFT space. I think building a bridge between them and crypto enthusiasts/aspiring collectors on the continent is an exciting endeavor.
You’ve also been asked by NFT marketplaces like SuperRare to curate African NFT artwork, in this case in honor of Black History Month. What is your experience of the interest in black and African creators, more broadly?
LD: Through Cyber Baat I curated a show with the marketplace Foundation last year - this was the first exhibition of art by African artists in web3. It opened up many opportunities for the DAO to curate similar shows. For example, with the SuperRare marketplace, with the NFT Oasis metaverse, for another DAO called Refraction in partnership with Carnegie Hall, or with the VERSEverse independent NFT publication. A few more marketplaces have been in touch to host similar shows. I think this demonstrates that there is a growing appetite for art by African artists, but also that marketplaces need the right links to our communities to bring these shows to life. These exhibitions are able to raise the floors of the artists we present by 2 to 3x. Often, there will be a couple of artists who stand out and whose NFT supplies will be entirely purchased within a few days of the exhibition. To me, what’s happening now feels very similar to what happened with Afrobeats a few years ago. Now you can go anywhere in the world without hearing it played on the radio or in clubs.
And lastly, who are some of your favorite NFT artists, whose work we should look out for?
LD: Everyone at Cyber Baat! There are about 30 artists in the DAO at the moment and each of them has had an unbelievable trajectory in the NFT space - especially given how hard it is to acquire and trade crypto in some African countries. We deeply care about bringing on the right talent in the DAO to ensure that we are able to support their longevity in the space. To me, Cyber Baat artists aren’t just unbelievably talented but they are also hard-working, professional, crypto-savvy, and community-oriented.
Ed: To see and support Cyber Baat artists’ work, check out the collective’s 11 NFTs interpreting the theme “Africa is not a country”.