A New Digital Frontier for Artists
Oakland and San Francisco based artist Asya Abdrahman’s life changed during the early days of the pandemic. Traditionally a creator of large, colorful and layered paintings, mixed media works, and sculptures, the limitations of her apartment courtyard as a place to work prompted her to pivot into digital artwork creation. She photographed her own paintings and began to create digital collages, layering one work upon another, varying light and color, taking new screen shots and utilizing each new digital fragment as seemed fit. She wove the separate layered digital images into a short meditative video. “At first I just called these efforts my digital doodles. I’d walk by my paintings and see the light reflected off them, and it gave me the inspiration to create a digital work capturing that experience. I wasn’t tech savvy.” But within a few months, she was posting five to ten or more new digital works on Instagram each day.
Abdrahman’s new foray into digital artwork coincided with the mid 2020 emergence of NFT artworks, which are digital art objects that can be bought and sold using cryptocurrencies. An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a digital certificate of authenticity for a digital object, whether an image, video, text, or code. NFTs are backed by blockchain technology and are created through a technical “minting” or certification process, making them “one-of-a-kind” collectible assets.
By the end of 2020, a number of online marketplaces for NFT artworks and other popular digital objects, such as digital sports trading cards, had been created, and news reports began to circulate about high-profile, multi-million-dollar sales. In March 2021, Christies sold its first all-digital artwork, a digital collage by artist Mike Winkleman, also known as Beeple, for $69 million. While such high value sales are not common, they have brought broader awareness of the possibilities of the new marketplace, which continues to grow exponentially. OpenSea and Rarible are among the more prominent sites used by artists.
In late 2020, Abdrahman learned how to mint her digital artworks as NFTs with the help of a “techie” who spent hours walking her through the process, starting with a photograph of one of her artworks in jpeg image form. “Coders, those young super nerds that are well-versed in this technology, think it’s so easy. But I found it very difficult.” Since that time, she has devoted hours to learning about the new technology which has the promise of creating new methods for preserving the identity, ownership, and authenticity of artwork, and opening up new marketplaces for its distribution and sale. Her goal is to train other artists to use the emerging technology and become familiar with the marketplace so that they can better control, protect, and sell their works.
“Artists can either create new digital artwork to mint as an NFT or use more traditional media. It’s a transition from an analog source – your painting or sculpture – to a digital source, and then to the NFT,” she explains. “When an NFT artwork is sold, the owner obtains rights to the unique digital object, but also, possibly, to a physical artwork, depending upon what the artist has created and intends to sell.” Abdrahman believes these sales can create sustainability for artists, not just those who create digital artworks, but creators of more traditional physical artworks as well. The marketplace can also provide greater control for artists over how the proceeds from a sale are distributed. “Some people think that all they have to do is take a few snippets of digital imagery, throw together a work, call it art and put it up for sale, but not all of this work can really be taken seriously. At this time most NFT art has originated as digital art, because the physical artists are still figuring it out.”
Abdrahman was only six years old in 1981 when her family fled their East African homeland during a time of regional wars and settled in San Diego. Her artworks reflect her Somali, Eritrean, and Ethiopian heritages, and feature themes of cultural and environmental preservation and regeneration. Active in the Bay Area artist community, her artworks are often an integral part of projects related to building self-empowerment, education, and meeting local resource needs. In 2020, with the pandemic-related closure and cancellation of Bay Area art exhibitions and programs, she founded the Kindness Grocery Cooperative which provided food and other resources to local artists and others facing food insecurity. The KGC mission has expanded to support sustainability and is now partially funded with donations from artists’ sales of NFT artworks. Her other many community projects include the Sun Village Artisan Corner, Pay It Forward Café, and a Water Sanctuary project at Point Reyes National Seashore demonstrating water capture through Icosahedron Fog Catchers. Her work has been shown in numerous galleries and installations. A lifelong learner with many academic credits, she readily acknowledges not focusing on college degrees or schools attended, but on “getting knowledge when I’m actually going to use it.”
Abdrahman served as juror for Arts Benicia’s summer 2021 art exhibition, That Which Surrounds You, reviewing digital photos to select the artworks to be included in the online-only exhibition. “Once you have a photograph of an artwork, you’re on your way to creating an NFT. All of those works could be minted and marketed on the new marketplace,” affirms Abdrahman. “You’re ready to go and take all these artists with you. Sotheby’s and Christies have stepped up, of course, but other galleries such as Arts Benicia are also positioned to step up as well.” There is so much to learn, but she aims to help the learning process along. To learn more about Abdrahman’s artwork and community projects, visit: