Indigenous Artists Venture into the New Digital World of NFTs

Buku Art CentreThe Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala. Courtesy of Buku 2020.

Indigenous Yolngu artists from the community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land have begun making and selling NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Yolngu artists are globally renowned for their innovative works that are inspired by artists' connections to land and sea. Now through this latest digital trend artists will be able to further share their incredible works, while hopefully bringing in a steady stream of funding (ABC News, 2022). 

What is a NFT?

NFTsWell known NFTs. Courtesy of Coinmonks, 2022.

So at this point you might be asking what specifically is a NFT and how does it work? Basically it is a digital piece of art (digital asset) that has a unique digital signature added to it when it goes through its authentication process. The authentication attached to the digital asset is one a kind which means while the file can be copied the digital signature cannot. The digital asset can be sold on, and using blockchain technology each owner and the amount they paid is recorded in the digital signature. This tech has created a brand new form of artwork ownership, and as such a new online marketplace (ABC News, 2022).

Yirrkala’s NFTs

Yirrkala NFTsDrawings by Yolngu artists from Yirrkala. Courtesy of ABC News, 2022.

The idea of creating NFTs was first brought to the Yirrkala community by investors, this new concept captured the interest of Yolngu artist Ishmael Marika who convinced the community to give it a go. While many of the world’s best selling NFTs so far have been cartoonish characters, Yirrkala’s NFTs are being created by digitising detailed physical works such as drawing and bark paintings. The artworks are photographed using an infrared camera and are then turned into moving digital works (ABC News, 2022). Yolngu artist Wukun Wanambi is well known for his incredible bark paintings, which have been exhibited all over the world. Now these unique paintings are being converted into NFTs. Wanambi commented to ABC News (2022): 

"I like to try new things, a new way of sharing art to the world"

NFT’s and Indigenous Art  

The Yirrkala community aren’t the only Indigenous artists exploring this potentially lucrative new marketplace. Gunnai, Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara artist Richard Young and his daughter Lyn-Al are both currently engaged in collaborations with brands within the NFT realm. In an interview with The New York Times Style Magazine: Australia (2022) Richard Young talked about how he hopes to help educate other First Nations artists and groups about NFTs:

“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,”

Wattle Dylan Mooney

‘Wattle’ (Plant Characters) by Dylan Mooney. Courtesy of Culture Vault, 2022.

There are also an increasing number of Australian companies developing business models based on the sale of Indigenous art as NFTs. Platforms such as the recently launched creative agency Culture Vault provide a way for the public to easily buy and engage with NFTs. The Culture Vault sells NFTs by some of Australia’s best known contemporary Indigenous artists including Dylan Mooney, Recko Rennie and Adam Briggs (TAustralia, 2022).  

It is so good to see Indigenous artists innovating and finding new ways of both sharing their beautiful art and stories with the world, and also earning good money by doing so. NFTs will also help artists guard their physical artworks from forgery. We wish the Yirrkala community all the best with this exciting new endeavour, and look forward to seeing their beautiful creations shared online.