Indigenous Art Launches into the NFT Metaverse

The new world of NFTs — non-fungible tokens — are presenting significant opportunities for Indigenous artists to express their traditional narratives and practice.

Article by Alexia Petsinis

Lyn-Al Young and Richard Young, pictured at Richard's solo exhibition ‘Scarred Species’ at Yering Station, 2021, in front of his artwork, "Transformed Mind". Photography courtesy of Richard Young.

Based in Naarm/Melbourne, Gunnai, Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara artist Richard Young and his daughter Lyn-Al are just two of the Indigenous artists successfully pursuing opportunities in the NFT space.

Having closely studied the evolution and intricacies of crypto-art and blockchain technology for the past few years, Richard and Lyn-Al are now engaged in major collaborations with brands and partners in the NFT realm. These projects offer Young and his family a platform to share their cultural truths and stories with the world, transposing highly gestural painted and mixed media works into universal virtual expressions of identity and belonging that transcend gallery walls.

“I’m collaborating with a global company on some exciting NFT projects throughout this year. These projects combine my work in fashion, art and culture to share insights into our culture and our stories. We have already collaborated on one NFT, which I can share more information about soon,” says artist and fashion designer Lyn-Al Young.

Global exposure via NFTs is one thing, education is another. In 2021 Australian digital technology provider ARQ Group hosted a “hackathon” training initiative, inviting Richard to stimulate conversations around the potential of NFT’s for Indigenous Australian artists and the wider community.

The hackathon explored issues around access to market and demonstrated the diversity of Aboriginal art beyond Central Australian “dot-art” stereotypes through educational initiatives. It also considered how language barriers could be overcome to communicate the intricacies and potential of the NFT sphere for Indigenous Australian artists working in remote communities.

“One of my goals is to help Aboriginal artists and family groups to understand the processes involved in NFTs and the whole area of crypto-currency in the context of resale royalties and contracts. It’s really about considering how we bridge that knowledge gap between what is happening out there in the global virtual art metaverse, and what artists understand of it all here in Australia,” says Richard.

Richard Young, "Empty Words", Acrylic and paper on canvas, 183 x 198cm. Courtesy of the artist.

With NFT education comes awareness. An increasing number of Australian companies are developing business models based on the sale of Indigenous Australian art as NFTs, identifying a widespread market appetite for buyers and brands to engage with Aboriginal narratives and themes expressed in both traditional and contemporary visual outcomes.

The recently launched Culture Vault is a new Australian-owned platform and creative agency founded by Michelle Grey, Sean Tolkin, Sam Linus and Susan Armstrong, selling NFTs by some of the country’s most celebrated names including Indigenous Australian artists and creatives Reko Rennie, Adam Briggs and Thea Anamara Perkins.

Created to bridge the gap between traditional art and the crypto community, Culture Vault invites virtual art buyers and collectors to engage with NFTs as part of a broader cultural experience, offering complementary experiential assets in conjunction with the purchasing journey.

Unlike other NFT art platforms which often prioritise the quick buck, Culture Vault reminds buyers and brands that NFTs are not just about sales transactions. They are a prompt for storytelling, cultural enrichment, and community engagement, which has always been central to the experience of Indigenous Australian art.

While the legalities of any artist entering the NFT space constitute an entire article unto itself, the metaverse does pose particular challenges to Indigenous Australian artists with heightened sensitivities around attribution, exclusivity expectations and power dynamics between artist and brand or commissioner.

Alana Kushnir — art lawyer, advisor and director of Guest Work Agency — reflects on a long history of Indigenous Australian artists having their work usurped by brands, media and private stakeholders to serve particular agendas. According to Kushnir, these issues can also repeat themselves in the NFT space if artists don’t seek legal advice or sound representation.

Conversely, however, blockchain technology in particular is proving extremely valuable in addressing issues around ownership and authenticity of Aboriginal art in the metaverse.

“There are long-standing issues with authenticity, provenance, misleading and deceptive conduct by many sellers of Indigenous art both locally and abroad. There are now initiatives being developed by the government to explore how blockchain technology can address some of these complexities. Every transaction is public on the blockchain and it is therefore valuable in not only tracking the journey of a work, but also monitoring whether the artist’s intent behind creating the piece is preserved,” Kushnir says.

Legal and logistic intricacies aside, the NFT space can be viewed through a conceptually spiritual lens, holding the promise of infinite creative possibility and universal storytelling beyond the physical form.

“For me, the NFT space is quite similar to the spiritual world we call Dreamtime,” says Lyn-Al Young. “It’s intangible, but it’s all-powerful, it’s all around us. Our Dreaming stories – which people can see in our physical art – translate powerfully through the metaverse on an immersive level that people haven’t experienced before. I’m excited for what the future holds.”