From artists to art galleries, art fairs and auction houses, cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are redrawing the art scene in Asia. 

Banksy’s “Laugh Now Panel A” artwork is being presented for sale starting today by Phillips, a top-tier auction house, in Hong Kong. This marks the first time a major auction house in Asia will accept Bitcoin or Ether as payment for physical artwork, according to Phillips

The Banksy sale follows two NFT auctions this year, which included “Mad Dog Jones” by digital artist Mad Dog Jones that was sold for US$4.1 million and “Bitchcoin” by artist Sarah Meyohas sold out last month. An NFT is a unique digital asset whose authenticity and ownership are tracked on a blockchain.

Jonathan Crockett, chairman of Asia at Phillips, told Forkast.News that the auction house has seen “a huge amount of interest” in NFTs in the past few months. “The blockchain technology behind NFTs has essentially enabled the discovery of some truly talented digital artists who have remained as of yet undiscovered in the traditional art market,” Crockett said. 

“The NFT market is still very new and has offered us an opportunity to engage with an entirely new community of collectors. It’s encouraging and exciting to see how supportive they are of this new medium and of digital artists in the field,” Crockett added.

From auction houses to art fairs

Beyond fine art and eye-popping multi-million-dollar sales at auction houses such as Beeple’s US$69 million sale at Christie’s, NFT artworks are also painting a new landscape for art in Asia. 

In Indonesia, a community of local and international artists, collectors, curators and galleries are gathering this month for Art Moments Jakarta, a premium art fair that has taken a hybrid in-person and online format this year due to Covid-19.

This year’s installment of the fair includes NFT artworks for the first time. One of the artworks, titled “53 Never Forgotten” by Indonesia-based husband and wife duo Ruanth Thyssen and Cindy Thyssen, was created to commemorate the 53 lives lost when the Indonesian Navy’s KRI Nanggala 402 submarine sank in April.

The artists — Ruanth Thyssen, an Oscar and BAFTA-nominated sound artist and Cindy Thyssen, a digital artist — intend to donate all proceeds from the sale of 5300 NFT editions of the artwork to the families of the 53 naval personnel who died as a way to alleviate their financial burden.

The artwork — a 53-second animation loop of a submarine floating amongst animated waves, overlaid by 53 layers of sound — is being sold on hic et nunc, a Tezos blockchain-based NFT marketplace, for one Tez (about US$3.30 as of publishing time) from now until June 30.

“Indonesian artists are beginning to embrace NFTs, enabling them to monetize their artwork, be positive changemakers for their communities, and help grow the creative economy of Indonesia,” said Katherine Ng, head of marketing at TZ APAC, an Asia-based consultancy supporting the Tezos blockchain ecosystem in a statement.

Ruanth Thyssen told Forkast.News in an interview: “NFTs are solving issues in the digital world that we never had solutions to before, for example, proving the authenticity of a digital work… I try to explain NFTs to people here in Indonesia, especially if it’s someone who likes handbags, that it’s like a Hermès certificate that states that your bag is authentic.”

“NFTs prove ownership, it gives royalties, it gives a new hope,” said Thyssen, adding that he had been inspired to donate the proceeds from the sale after an encounter with a charity fundraise on the social app Clubhouse.

Not all NFTs have to be fine art and minted on Ethereum

“53 Never Forgotten” is the genesis piece created by the couple and they wanted their first work together to support a meaningful cause, said Thyssen, who has family members who served in the military. The couple minted their NFT on Tezos-based NFT platform hic et nunc given its significantly lower transaction fees (“gas” fees) compared to Ethereum.

“A lot of people have this view that minting on Tezos, on hic et nunc, would produce cheaper, less valuable art, but it’s not a correct perception,” Thyssen said. “The value lies in your art, not in the blockchain.”

Thyssen, who mined Ethereum for several years in the past, said Ethereum has its use cases as do other blockchains. “It’s US$3 for one Tez and US$0.18 transaction fees, you can’t do that on Ethereum,” Thyssen said. “People who understand anything about different blockchains will know what I’m talking about.” 

With the explosive growth of decentralized finance (DeFi), NFTs and stablecoins, high gas fees have been a persistent problem in the Ethereum ecosystem and alternative blockchains have emerged, such as Polygon, a layer 2 Ethereum scaling solution and Binance Smart Chain where Indian cryptocurrency exchange WazirX’s recently launched its NFT marketplace.

Brazilian NFT platform hic et nunc — which means “here and now” in Latin — has also been gaining popularity among NFT artists, particularly from developing countries, due to its lower cost. Also, the platform is not curated and anyone can participate unlike some NFT marketplaces that are curated. Based on the proof-of-stake Tezos blockchain, hic et nunc is seen as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to the proof-of-work Ethereum blockchain. 

‘Crypto art changed my life’

Shelly Soneja, an art director and digital artist from the Philippines, has also seen more new artists who are struggling with the high gas costs on Ethereum move to hic et nunc. Soneja, who started creating NFT art in September during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, told Forkast.News that finding out about NFT art and the concept of digital scarcity has been “a game-changer especially for digital artists.”

She was ecstatic when all 10 editions of the first artwork she created (“minted”) sold out in less than 30 minutes at 0.1 ETH each — or about US$38 at the time. “For people in developed countries, maybe that amount is not much,” said Soneja adding that it meant a lot to her as someone “from Asia, from a developing country on top of that and being a digital artist who has never really seen that kind of amount of money.”  Soneja said she was able to pay off her debt, help others, and maintain some financial security.

“I like how crypto art changed my life,” Soneja said. “Mainstream news outlets, they always talk about US$69 million dollars [for Beeple’s NFT artwork] and people making millions and millions of dollars. But there’s not much focus on how it’s been helping developing countries, especially here, not only me.”

To ease the barriers of entry for artists from developing countries wishing to mint their first NFT artworks, Narra Gallery, a Filipino metaverse art gallery in Decentraland, has seeded 1.12 ETH (or about US$2,000) into a First Mint Fund to support Southeast Asian artists who wish to mint their first work of crypto art but struggle with paying the gas fees. “Seeing all these ways that people are helping each other during the pandemic is great,” Soneja said.

There are now more opportunities for digital artists with the proliferation of NFT platforms and features such as programmable art — digital art split into “layers” that can change the overall image — that allow them to showcase their creativity. But it is also tougher for artists to stand out given the large influx of artists entering the space, Soneja said. “It’s more difficult now to get attention for your work.”

Although NFT art sales may have taken a dip of late, galleries and art fairs such as Art Moments Jakarta and Art Fair Philippines have featured NFT art exhibitions, workshops and panel discussions in their 2021 editions — seeking to put the spotlight on this emerging art form. 

Still early days for NFTs in Asia

Thyssen says it is still very early days for NFT artists and collectors in Indonesia. “It’s going to be a while before we see a significant number of Indonesian NFT collectors,” he said. “But it’s making a lot of news for people in the art world, so collectors know of NFTs even though they don’t fully understand it, and they’re very interested, especially the gallery owners.”

He added that artists who are looking towards NFTs to help them generate value from their artwork need to be authentic. “In the NFT art space, what people care about the most is your story and they care about your authenticity simply because it’s mimicking the blockchain, everything in the blockchain is transparent.”

See related article: Polygon and partner to protect NFTs from disappearing