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Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology have taken the world by storm, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. While these technologies have been around since 2008, with the advent of Bitcoin and its small-scale introduction to cryptography enthusiasts, the pandemic has spurred an increased interest across financial and nonfinancial circles in the cryptocurrency market and the potentials of blockchain technology. NFTs – nonfungible tokens – more specifically, are unique digital assets, such as music, art, collectibles, and tickets to certain events on the blockchain digital ledger that allow artists and owners to trace the authenticity and provenance of their tokens. These types of assets have been around since 2014, but the sale of Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” digital collage at Christie’s for $69 million in 2021 launched NFTs into mainstream art circles.
In the Gulf, the buzz over cryptocurrencies, and the subsequent rise of formal institutions to regulate digital assets, has grown in recent years. Events like Gulf Blockchain Week, with its accompanying NFT exhibition, “NFT BAZL,” have helped increase the exposure of blockchain technology and NFTs to regional business, finance, and technology communities. Local art scenes also have not shied away from experimenting with NFTs to introduce local audiences to new digital artwork. In late 2020, Bandar Al-Wazzan founded BAWA, a digital art platform based in Kuwait, to promote art from the region and as a local NFT-buying platform. Similarly, the Commercial Bank of Dubai became one of the first banks in the world to have its own NFT in December 2021 after a collaboration with United Arab Emirates-based digital artist Amrita Sethi. Dubai Culture has likewise recently launched its first NFT art exhibition, in collaboration with Morrow Collective, featuring works by local artists.
AGSIW spoke to Bahraini digital artist, toymaker, and co-founding partner of Shepherd Studio Abdulla BinHindi to learn more about his creative practice, assessment of the rise of NFT art in the region, and outlook on the future of digital assets in the Gulf.
AGSIW: Tell us more about your background as an artist and toymaker.
Abdulla: Well, I’m actually mainly an architect. That’s what I specialized in at University of the Arts London then at the University of Westminster in London. My family’s background is more on the business side, but I deviated from that path and chose to explore the creative field. I originally considered going into game design but instead opted for architecture as a way to learn many of the same technical skills while focusing more on spatial narratives and how we interact with objects and spaces as humans. After graduating, I became a co-founder and partner of Shepherd Studio, a transdisciplinary design practice with a focus on architecture. But we also explore other avenues, such as product design, experiences, and pavilions; basically, our goal is to add value to the human experience through design. We’re based in Bahrain, but we also take on projects around the Gulf as well as in London. That’s the architectural side. Personally, though, I’m a toymaker and an artist. I was heavily influenced by Kaws and his figurines in an art course I took in high school and enjoyed collecting video games and pop culture toys, like “Star Wars” figurines and Legos. Eventually, while I was still studying architecture, I began experimenting with shapes and designs in my spare time and, after coming back to Bahrain, came up with the idea for the Karak toy character.
AGSIW: What does the Karak toy represent and what is the idea behind it?
Abdulla: The Karak character is a combination of nostalgia, culture, and our people’s love for karak, a sweet, spiced tea popular in the Gulf, mixed with funny little ideas that you get when you’re really exhausted and on the brink of hallucination. When I first graduated and started Shepherd Studio with my co-founders, there were a lot of long days spent trying to get our business up and running, when we’d only have time for a quick cup of coffee at the end of the night before doing it all over again the next day. There was one day in particular when we were at a coffee shop, and I was looking at my cup half asleep, and suddenly it clicked. I had my notebook on me and started doodling, paying close attention to the dried-up coffee and milk inside the cup that almost seemed aggressive the more I looked at it. After creating a digital model of the toy, prototyping and testing different materials, then eventually producing it as a physical item, the doodle turned into the Karak toy that we see today. Later on, I introduced some more toys and characters into the digital collection, like a slime version, vampire version, and chocolate version.
AGSIW: How did your interest in NFTs come about?
Abdulla: I’d been following the artist Beeple for years and since I was already producing digital versions of the toys during the design process before turning them into physical items, I decided to use this avenue to explore NFTs. When his work blew up, that’s when it clicked for me. It seemed like a way to add value to my digital work, since most of the pieces that I made just fed into my Instagram feed and got buried there. In a sense, posting it on social media platforms was fulfilling, but it felt like there was no real value behind the art. That’s what led me down the NFT route and, later on, to bridging digital assets and physical toys. I heard a term a while back that really blew my mind; it’s called “phygital,” or a mix of physical and digital. I wanted to incorporate that concept into my work by selling an NFT that came with a physical collectible or a toy that would grant the owner an NFT.
The jump from digital pieces to NFTs specifically felt like it was in line with what I was working on and with the buzz around this technology. From there, I jumped down the rabbit hole of cryptocurrency and blockchain research. I don’t come from a finance background, but I had been looking into the stock market and investing just before the coronavirus. With the start of the pandemic and lockdowns, I had a lot more free time to dive into this research, which led me to think about how I could incorporate NFT technology into my physical and digital work.
AGSIW: How is the scene of creating and buying NFTs in the Gulf?
Abdulla: There are definitely communities within the NFT and crypto space locally, but they are quite small. I’ve met lots of people from around the Gulf interested in NFTs or crypto, but even then, the adoption of blockchain technology has been a bit slow. I see this as more of an advantage, though, both to myself and others in the region who want to explore NFTs more deeply. On the other hand, I think that a lot of the hype around NFTs at the moment comes from the fact that making and buying NFT art is a trend. At the same time, the underlying technology behind NFTs can be unlocked in ways other than art. For instance, concert tickets could be sold as NFTs, so you could verify who you’re purchasing your ticket from. For the moment, I get the sense that a lot of people want to capitalize on the trend of NFT art, as happens historically when things become popular.
AGSIW: What do you think will help support the growing interest in NFTs locally?
Abdulla: I think that having certain established institutions, like auction houses, adopt and participate in promoting this kind of artwork and technology would definitely help bring NFTs to a more mainstream audience. I also think that the emergence of platforms based out of the Middle East and North Africa region will help support local digital artists. There are some that already exist, like Gallery BAWA, and some that are being launched soon, that serve as online galleries and NFT marketplaces. These kinds of spaces, which are open to exploring the fine art world and complementing it with the digital art world, are the ones that are bringing more attention and prominence to NFTs in the region.
Last, we could also really benefit from more of a communal push and drive, where artists support one another. I’ve seen so many Iranian artists, for instance, succeed in a matter of months because of how tightly knit their artist community is and how much these artists support each other. I feel like that’s something that we could benefit from greatly. That’s just a matter of communication, or lack thereof, among artists here. Because of the lack of communication, we don’t know what other artists exist around us. Slowly, you start to find out that others are working on the same things as you are, and, bit by bit, the community grows. The knowledge is definitely spreading, and more and more people are exploring NFTs – if not creating – by buying them.
AGSIW: What is your outlook on the future of NFTs in the Gulf?
Abdulla: I’d say that the future definitely looks bright for crypto in the region. If my younger brother can convince my father to start investing in cryptocurrencies and NFTs, I think that things are going to work out fine. People who were resistant to cryptocurrencies and NFTs are slowly dipping their toes into exploring them a lot more. Being in Bahrain specifically is a big advantage because of the legal and financial regulations in place and the willingness of the government to engage with cryptocurrency. For instance, we’ve had the Bahraini-based cryptocurrency exchange platform Rain for a few years, which is fully regulated and licensed by the Central Bank of Bahrain. This was a huge step toward the acceptance of crypto in mainstream culture and in finance more broadly. And now Binance’s recent announcement of being approved in Bahrain is going to solidify the place of crypto here as well. Once most of these governmental institutions are on board, I think that the adoption of this technology will be sped up.
As an artist, I plan to focus on expanding the Karak toy collection, both physically and digitally, making the character more internationally recognizable and exploring ways to combine the physical collectible and NFT on a bigger scale.
Follow Abdulla BinHindi on Twitter @manna3i.
Nada Ammagui is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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