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Dubai gallery explores new frontier of NFTs as art objects

Non-fungible tokens represent a new way to buy, sell and experience art, and many artists and collectors in the Gulf have become enthusiastic participants.
breaking boundaries

Last year, in a first of its kind for the region, the Firetti Contemporary gallery in Dubai held an exhibit titled 'NFT/ IRL' (in real life), which displayed artworks side by side to with their digital counterparts, NFTs (non-fungible tokens). 

"NFTs are already changing the way that art is bought and sold, and as we move towards the future, where this will be increasingly mainstream, it is important to embrace these changes," said Mara Firetti, the gallery's founder and CEO, at the time.

The Firetti's current show, Breaking Boundaries, (Feb. 4 - Apr. 15) again explores the platform between the crypto art world and the traditional. One can fully embrace the metaverse's connectivity from home or through the virtual gallery (VR headsets optional). If one cannot visit in person, the 3D space can be explored via a viewing room accessible through their website.

A trip to the gallery took on a new perspective through a VR headset. For example, inspired by internet history, one of the artworks is a mosaic based on a meme that punctuates the difference between two generations. A voiceover for the latter says he spent his life savings on a digital salmon. But, of course, in the metaverse, these things are possible.

The exhibition brings together the works of Saudi Arabian artist Nasser Al Salem and British artist Josh Rowell, both of whom find the foundations of language and communication to be central to their work. Al Salem uses mixed media forms to explore its conceptual potential, and much of Rowell's work highlights the moment when connectivity is lost to the digital world.

Al Salem’s piece “Allah (He is the first and the last)” is the first-ever NFT the artist has exhibited. The multimedia installation has the letters of the word “Allah” stripped down to basic geometric lines and shapes.

According to the exhibition catalogue, Al Salem  (who currently lives and works in Jeddah) is known for pushing language boundaries with his unconventional use of mixed-media platforms.

Rowell's first NFT of the series “Virtually Fragile” is inspired by images of broken screens. The series title points out how despite the amount of time we invest in the internet through our screens, the situation can still be taken away, which runs 'in parallel to the fragility of the devices themselves.'

Celine Azem, Firetti's director and co-curator, told Al-Monitor that connecting fine art and NFTs forms a response to the rapidly changing landscape of art and creativity. She added, "Viewers and collectors can appreciate not only the digital possibilities but the tangible potential of both physical and digital art." 

Another artist to embrace NFTs is Saudi princess and photographer Reem Al-Faisal. She has recently added her Mekkah and Madinah series of photographs to OpenSea's NFT marketplace. She also recently displayed her work in a metaverse art gallery with six other Saudi artists. In an interview with Bitcoin.com, Al-Faisal said NFTs are "the next medium of artistic expression."

Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in advanced technologies with plans for the futuristic city of NEOM to launch its own metaverse.

Sotheby's hosted a digital arts forum last week in collaboration with the Visual Arts Commission of the Kingdom's Ministry of Culture on Feb. 25-27, alongside the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in the historic city of Diriyah. The three-day forum held a series of talks and workshops on blockchain technology and the NFT ecosystem. In addition, Sotheby's revealed a collection of NFTs by Saudi and international artists.

Finder.com reports that the number of people who own an NFT in the United Arab Emirates is double the global average. So, it is not surprising that many events are taking place in Dubai, including Art Dubai (March 11-13). This year's event will feature a new fair section, Art Dubai Digital. Among the digital art galleries are studios representing artists from Istanbul and Tehran. In addition, guest speakers will hold talks on topics such as cryptocurrency and developments in the crypto media space.

All things metaverse will be explored in the upcoming MetaWeek 2022 Summit (Mar. 7-10) in Dubai.

Caution around NFTs is still necessary. Oversaturation makes it easy to dismiss the market as an explosive bubble. And news of stolen NFTs and hacking may cause some people to remain wary.

“When I first started selling my digital artwork, it used to really bother me seeing my work being copied and profited on without my permission," said Kristel Bechara, a Dubai-based Lebanese visual artist who is known in the region as the first Arab female artist to create unique artworks with NFTs. But, she told Al-Monitor, "With NFTs, I find comfort in the fact that the ownership of my work is unquestionable, as there is an immutable and transparent record on the blockchain. This will always authenticate the originality of my artwork."

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