'A Great Day In Web3’
It's June 19th 2022 and a sunny day in Harlem. 90 black-identifying web3 creators including the likes of Cory Van Lew, Rhyver White, and Branden Ruffin have come together on E126th Street to have their photograph taken. The event, A Great Day In Web3, echoed the now notable 1958 photo for Esquire Magazine of Jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie gathering on these same steps, as well as the later 1998 photo for XXL magazine of key hip hop artists including A Tribe Called Quest. The event was spearheaded by Manouschka Guerrier, a chef with a passion for web3 who often found herself the only black woman at web3 events and conferences. With this in mind, she felt it important to bring creators together to harness a sense of community whilst also situating these creators in a historical context. For a lot of us in the space, it is about community, it is about art’, and events such as this help to reinforce the black voice in what is otherwise a white-centric space.
Osinachi is considered the ‘first crypto artist out of Africa’. He has previously sold NFTs at Christies, and was named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2022. But like many digital artists, Osinachi struggled to make ends meet through his work before being introduced to NFTs in 2017. With his rise to fame, Osinachi now uses his reputation to support emerging African artists, and in September 2022 he collaborated with the MakersPlace platform to produce the ‘Africa Now’ accelerator program that aims to highlight and produce a strong African-based NFT community:
"I know from personal experience how challenging it can be to be creative with limited resources, [...] MakersPlace is helping me provide the opportunity to shine a light on Africa's talent and raise awareness for my fellow gifted designers".
The accelerator has since announced six winners, each of whom had the opportunity to show work at the SCOPE art show during Art Week Miami.
The African NFT Community is a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), a type of collective that aims to empower African artists and provide the infrastructure to support the onboarding of artists from the African continent and diaspora. This includes an artist directory, educational resource, and exhibitions. For example, their first exhibition Paradise, launched in March 2022 to celebrate women’s history month. Curated by artist Abieyuwa, the online exhibition presents the work of 22 black female artists, each showcasing what paradise means to them. For Abieyuqa, this was a monumental moment for black NFT artists;
"It’s the African NFT community’s first ever exhibition, I don’t think there have been any other shows where it’s just all black women".
These snapshots are just a few examples of initiatives that are challenging the white-centric nature of the art NFT space. The discourse on the decentralized nature of web3 stipulates that this technology was set to liberate those marginalized from traditional art market, indeed in speaking of the web3 space, Guerrier noted; ‘for black people, this is the first time that we can achieve something that has eluded us for so long, and that is generational wealth’. Despite this, the NFT space suffers from a similar diversity crisis found within the art market and cultural sector, leaving many black artists feeling disenfranchised and alienated.
“I think I was the second person on SuperRare that was black that was actually selling artwork, so after me, there was like a wave of artists who got to see someone who looked like them.”
As Cory Van Lew highlights, it only takes one person to help change this perspective. But this requires action from the rest of the space to advocate and promote voices that find it difficult to be heard.Fortunately, as Omar Desire and Iris Nevins of Umba Daima note, other creators and collectors in the art NFT space do value diversity, and many challenge the structural inequalities faced by those marginalized in wider society including those of black, asian, and mixed race ethnicities. Therefore, the issue at hand is one of a lack of understanding about where to look to support diversity initiatives.
This problem could be understood as a lack of effort. DYOR (Doing Your Own Research), a well-known acronym used within the web3 space, certainly resonates with this point; everyone wants to own the next ‘xcopy’, but few will put the work in to find them. At the same time, the decentralized aspect of the space makes it difficult to find specific groups, particularly when there is no clear signposting or the initiatives have not been promoted across online forums or social media.
This highlights a major barrier to a diverse web3 space, but this is also an area that cultural institutions could support as they enter this field. Although faced with a similar diversity crisis, cultural institutions play an important role in showcasing and celebrating the stories of the past through their collections and exhibitions. For example, institutions could use their authority and platform to highlight artists or initiatives that might otherwise find it difficult to attract attention. A case in point is Iconic Moments’ and White House Historical Association’s NFT created by artist Linda Dounia Rebeiz, titled Sparrows Do Not Fear the Sun, which uses Alma Thomas’ Resurrection from the Association’s archive as its inspiration. Resurrection was the first work by a black woman to be accessioned to the White House’s collection, and unveiled by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2015. Sparrows Do Not Fear the Sun continues with this theme combining artificial intelligence, vibrant color, and natural forms to celebrate this work and spotlight Thomas' story.
In this way, the role of a cultural institution in web3 could be to support emerging artists or initiatives such as the African NFT community and provide them with a platform to share their work. Additionally, these collaborations could be symbiotic, where the collaboration supports the cultural institution by helping to bridge the gap between web3 and the cultural sector. Therefore, this highlights collaboration as an important theme that could support a more equitable and supportive web3 space where the market does not simply replicate the structural inequalities of the traditional art market. Through collaborations, cultural institutions could find an important role in signposting to initiatives that contain voices that are traditionally marginalized. Indeed, through collaborations, cultural institutions could find their role in the web3 space.
The discourse on the decentralized nature of web3 stipulates that this technology was set to liberate those marginalized from the traditional art market. Despite this, the NFT space is largely white-centric. Some initiatives such as, A Great Day in Web3 and Africa Now, are introducing more diversity into the space, but there is still more work to be done. One way to overcome the barriers to diversity is to partner with cultural institutions who can curate collections and introduce diverse voices, while also allowing for collaboration. As we recognize Black history month, we reflect on the progress that has been made, and the steps still to come in telling diverse stories in web3.