The First Pan-Regional Arab-Led Blockchain NFT Art Exhibition


The New Arab talks with Wizara about their new ARQAAM exhibit – the first pan-regional Arab-led NFT exhibit on the blockchain platform that features digital artists from Southern countries.

As the Information Age propels us deeper into uncharted territory, the intensity of technological change has provided new ways for culture to be heard, seen and become.

New forms of popular media such as TikTok, Clubhouse and Discord have revolutionized the way we engage with the virtual, which has created new forms of relationships between cultures and changed the way we perceive memory, body and life. ‘space.

Despite this, data saturation has also led to collective blindness. The algorithm is now a fundamental element of rational choice, our own critical capacities are paralyzed. At an increasing rate, people’s beliefs about the world are now determined by their technological sights.

“As the metaverse gets closer and closer, our view of the world is constantly changing, influenced by the blurring of identity and culture.”

So how do you stay one step ahead in the face of such frenetic innovation? Can we really stay ahead? Such questions have tormented the minds for decades. Write in Time magazine 50 years ago, RZ Sheppard remarked: “In the same way that fish cannot conceptualize water or birds, man barely understands his infosphere, that layer of electronic smog that surrounds him. For most of the world’s population, this analogy continues to be relevant today.

The global digital divide, brutally exposed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, has highlighted the consequences if parts of the population do not receive the same level of access to information. Once again, it seems that the countries of the South are lagging behind.

Yet as The New Arabic sat down with Cairo-based platform Wizara, the first blockchain-based platform built by artists for artists, to discuss their exhibition ARQAAMIt is evident that outside of the wired servers of Silicon Valley, signs have emerged of how we – the post-colonial generation – can pave the way for this brave new world.

Wizara is the premier blockchain-based platform for artists primarily based in Southern countries, with ARQAAM his first exhibition led by NFT.

Its goal: to foster a new paradigm for the African, Arab and Asian digital arts scene by trusting the blockchain which, at least in its infancy, claims to be the next great equalizer.

So what is blockchain? It’s definitely a word you’ve heard echoing from the boardroom to the pub table.

The blockchain is a network of digital registers, totally incorruptible, which gives a clear origin of any transaction defined within a computer network of databases, accessible by anyone within the network.

As a system, the blockchain is virtually impossible to modify, hack or trick the system, giving total power to those who trade in it. In the case of Wizara and ARQAAM, artists who sell their work as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) on the blockchain have complete autonomy over their work, and buyers can be confident that the artist’s work is theirs, not counterfeit.

At this point, the word ARQAAM should be noted. As co-founder Adham Hafez explained, the word in Arabic translates to “numbers” and is a prime example of how our Eurocentric world has co-opted the achievements of other civilizations to the point that their source is forgotten.

Every day we use Arabic numerals, they underpin our daily life. However, “its history and its knowledge of sharing and coexistence” is a passing fact, to which little importance is given. ARQAAM playfully rejects this singular narrative of historical events, rejects a uniquely Western perspective, and offers artists a contemporary – perhaps even futuristic – way to forge and define their own heritage.

Focusing neither on specificity nor on the theme, the project rather questions the shared questions that shape the team of artists: what is the future of the body in the era of Artificial Intelligence (AI), what will be our presence, how performance evolves, how is stored in memory and how can we better shape the machine to imagine our future. Not us against them, but our.

With more than twenty artists from countries as diverse as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Syria, Kenya, Palestine, South Korea and Armenia, ARQAAM is “a time to enter conversations, name and rename definitions, and work collaboratively”.

“In the same way that fish cannot conceptualize water or birds, man barely understands his infosphere, that layer of electronic smog that surrounds him.”

In its revolutionary collection of essays, Souls of Black Folk (1903), WEB Du Bois first described “double consciousness” as a trait inherent in racialized minorities within oppressive systems, while necessarily interacting with it.

Particularly relevant to the post-colonial generation, it offered us two ways of seeing the world: through the prism of the oppressive majority, and as an outsider with a distinct culture. This double gaze is at the heart of Wizara and ARQAAM: looking back, examining our present, investigating the future.

One of those pieces that embodies this is Lamia Gouda’s puppet Quarantine. The latter is a belly dancer taking a drive through Cairo’s KitKat district, in search of the lost remains of her infamous cabaret. It adorns the traditional costume bedlah – a fitted bra, a belly belt and a long skirt.

As she moves forward, she looks for companions from the past, for adventure, but finds only the apathy of urban environments: fast fashion, soulless restaurants, banks. It is a lost profession, lost for the occupation of knowledge. Her status as a supporter of raas al baladi, now resigned to oriental art and colonial aesthetics.

The quarantine proves that many artists from southern countries have always been in quarantine. Faced with both a local and global disconnection from their art, their only solace can be found within platforms without politics or judgment. Taking refuge in the blockchain, Quarantina hopes that her art form will not be lost or at least remembered for what it once was.

Lamia Gouda has created a series of photographs, videos and GIF art that delves into the history of oriental dance and its position in a radically changing urbanity. This series offers a behind-the-scenes look, telling how the public space reacts to the figure of an oriental dancer even though it is served by the puppet Quarantina and not by a person. [Wizara/ARQAAM]

Perhaps the most impressive piece of ARQAAM however comes from multidisciplinary artist and Moroccan coder Ahmed El Shaer.

Engaging in a conversation with AI, Ahmed’s Dialogue with the Machine deals with how a machine might conceptualize heaven. Using software from MIT where El Shaer translates pieces of text from sacred texts (mono and polytheistic) into code, the software then transforms the code into images. Phenomenally, Ahmed did not enter any images into the software, only text.

The representation below is the result of how the machine imagines our own calculation and creates important metaphysical and eschatological questions that we need to think about.

“AI Heaven” – An AI generated painting by Ahmed El Shaer. The representations produced through these Human / AI interactions generate ephemeral trompe-l’oeil representations that evoke Persian miniatures as well as Baroque architectural motifs. [Wizara/ARQAAM]

As El Shaer explained, what turned him on the most about the project was his machine-delivered faith. “You never know what’s coming out. We always think that it is us who will propose visual representations ”. His work at ARQAAM proves that our absolute certainty about the afterlife may not be so inventive after all.

“With more than twenty artists from countries as diverse as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Syria, Kenya, Palestine, South Korea and Armenia, ARQAAM is a moment of conversation , naming and renaming of definitions, and collaborative work “

Of course, the creation of Wizara and ARQAAM did not come without challenges. There are still many artists who resist NFTs and blockchain, largely because of the electrical stress they place on the environment. Wizara has been working hard to find a way around this, and by using a form of blockchain called Polygon, there is a way, as co-founder Adham Hafez said. The New Arabic, “to make it green”.

Resistance is more likely to come from structures established on the Internet. A day before the start of the exhibition, Hafez said The New Arabic that their Instagram account had been banned from the shadows, meaning that any form of promotion had little impact.

For those working in digital activism, such silence has become an unfortunate factor in their process. During the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza in May, those attempting to thwart Instagram’s so-called “community directives” engaged in a number of different tactics to make themselves heard. Once again, the irony of evading “the algorithm” – first created by Muslim polymath Al-Khwarizmi – has not been lost.

As the metaverse gets closer and closer, our view of the world is constantly changing, influenced by the blurring of identity and culture. As Wizara proves, such changes force us to create unique cultural products that not only have a “lifespan,” but can also provide the building blocks for new creative ontologies.

This responsibility has not escaped the postcolonial generation, which now considers cultural objects and formations as a powerful weapon against Eurocentrism.

Through a link between cultural expression, historical oppression and the growing dystopia of urban centers, we have the power to affect the possibility of space and time and to enable us to reimagine silent stories and assemblages. previously forgotten. Wizara is one of those pioneers who undertook this fateful task.

Benjamin Ashraf is an uninvited scholar in the Department of International Studies at the University of Jordan and a scholar at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. He is also part of the editorial team of The New Arab.


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