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Southeast Asian digital artists are building online communities to foster regional adoption of NFTs

Written by Stephanie Pearl Li Published on     6 mins read

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Malaysia NFT, MetaRupa, and NFT Asia are educating and empowering new NFT adopters across Southeast Asia.

Ruanth Chrisley Thyssen kept a sharp eye on the news after learning that the Indonesian Navy’s KRI Nanggala-402 submarine was found missing on the morning of April 22. The Bali-based Oscar and two-time BAFTA-nominated sound designer, whose family members serve in the navy, later learned that the submarine was found sunken and cracked into parts, with its 53 crew members confirmed dead.

“I felt empathetic towards the crew members,” Thyssen said. “While the news was being shared across different social media platforms, I saw a video in which a young boy was throwing a tantrum to prevent his sailor father from leaving for work. The video really touched me,” he added.

The incident motivated Thyssen to create an NFT artwork to raise funds to support the families impacted by the tragedy. Together with his wife, Cindy Thyssen, the duo created an art piece named 53 Never Forgotten, a 53-second animation loop of a submarine floating among animated waves, overlaid with 53 layers of sounds.

The fundraising, which started in late May, came at a time when NFTs were riding on the tailwind of digital artist Beeple’s sale of his work Everydays: The First 5,000 Days for USD 69 million in March. Other works, such as Stay Free, by activist Edward Snowden, sold for USD 5.4 million in April. Replicator, by artist Mad Dog Jones, sold for USD 4.1 million in the same month.

Thyssen’s NFT fundraising project, however, has only raised around USD 2,000 as of November 8, shy of its USD 3,000 minimum target. “Sales hadn’t been that great. Most buyers and collectors in the NFT space come from the West. Many donors in Asia or even Indonesia haven’t entered the NFT space yet, and they have no idea how to contribute,” Thyssen said.

Although NFTs trading volume worldwide skyrocketed to USD 10.7 billion in Q3 of this year, up 704% from the previous quarter, in Southeast Asia, language barriers, costly transaction fees, and the lack of localized NFT communities have slowed adoption, according to Thyssen.

Despite the challenges, local artists see NFTs as a potential new source of income. Some of them, like Thyssen, even went ahead to create online communities such as MetaRupa to foster education about the NFT space. Launched in June, the platform also serves as an NFT exhibition space. Since going live, it has amassed over 400 members on its Discord channel.

“The biggest problem Southeast Asian artists face is that they have no idea where to start. Most of the onboarding information and resources are not available in local languages, and not everyone is fluent in English,” he said. MetaRupa members are helping others by translating relevant information into Indonesian, Thyssen added.

53 Never Forgotten pays tribute to the 53 families who lost their loved ones. Image courtesy of Ruanth Thyssen.

Breaking barriers

Malaysian artist Munira Hamzah has always been passionate about creating pixel art. She’s also an avid fan of the rock band Linkin Park. In February, Munira made a foray into the NFT space with a creation named Mike Doge Twerke, which depicts Linkin Park’s lead vocalist, Mike Shinoda, and his wife Anna, dancing in animal costumes. The art was inspired by a scene from a Twitch livestream about Shinoda’s collaborative record, “Dropped Frames.” She was surprised to know that the same Shinoda was the first buyer of her art for MYR 7,400 (USD 1,780) soon after its release.

As she started creating more NFTs, Munira realized that only a few Malaysian artists were present in the space. “Most Malaysian artists were isolated. They didn’t know about each other at all,” Munira, also known online by the pseudonym Mumu The Stan, told KrASIA.

Navigating crypto payments is one of the significant difficulties for artists who are fresh to the scene, not to mention the “gas fee” for minting NFTs, or the payment required to compensate for the computing energy to create a new block of information, or contract, on a blockchain such as Ethereum or Tezos. OpenSea, one of the most popular NFT marketplaces, charges a gas fee from artists when they set up a new account, plus a minting fee that artists or buyers cover, depending on the transaction when an NFT is sold. Minting fees on the Ethereum blockchain fluctuate according to the supply and demand for processing power, ranging from USD 10 to USD 100. The platform also charges 2.5% of the final transaction as a service fee.

To encourage more artists to make a foray into the NFT space, in March, Munira founded Malaysia NFT, a digital community that connects local creators across social media and Discord. The platform helps local artists by covering their first-time NFT minting fee on the Tezos blockchain, while it also hosts “mentor parties” to connect and educate people who want to create their first NFT. Minting new art on the Tezos Blockchain currently costs around 0.08 tez (XTZ), or USD 0.50 at the current exchange rate. Malaysia NFT is able to cover such expenses thanks to donations, fundraisings, and sales of original NFTs, Munira said.

While local communities like Malaysia NFT and MetaRupa have helped break barriers, building a solid and active community is not an easy process. Clara Che Wei Peh, founder of NFT Asia, one of the largest communities of its kind in the region, told KrASIA that the group spent months collecting members and fostering a community culture.

“In the beginning, it was really hard to look for different NFT artists in Asia and connect with them. In February, I felt like that the space was predominantly focused on the West,” she said. “As I was speaking to some artists, especially those based in Singapore, we realized that people were looking for a space to feel a sense of belonging. A community to share resources and learnings, and to stay in touch with all the things that are happening. We then created that community on Discord.”

NFT Asia has already amassed over 2,700 members. “We always encourage our members to drop their projects, attend and host different events, and connect with other players. Every Monday, we will host game nights that don’t necessarily have to be related to NFTs. It’s just to foster a sense of togetherness,” said Peh, who’s also an art researcher and curator. 

NFTs adoption to grow in Southeast Asia

Although the NFT market is still unripe in Southeast Asia, the region is becoming a crypto hub. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand were ranked second, third, and fifth, respectively, in terms of crypto adoption across 55 countries in 2020, according to data from Statista.

Thyssen believes that crypto adoption will help to foster the NFT market “very soon.” He also mentioned how the rapid rise of play-to-earn games like Axie Infinity in the region could also influence more people to join the NFT space.

An array of crypto art events have also emerged across Southeast Asia in partnership with local NFT communities, including Art Moments Jakarta, Art Fair Philippines, and CryptoArt Week Asia (CAWA). Malaysia NFT partnered with CAWA in July to launch the first ever crypto art gallery in Malaysia, while 53 Never Forgotten was the first NFT art to be displayed at the Art Moments Jakarta 2020.

“The artistic style that comes from Southeast Asia’s creative community is so distinct from what we’ve seen in the West. So far, we’ve seen a very specific, minimalistic, and abstract type of work. But when you look at some local artists’ works, you can immediately tell it was made by a Southeast Asian artist,” Thyssen said.

The “unique cultural influence” of Southeast Asian artists will bring more color to the NFT space, which has so far predominantly focused on the West, Munira added.

“As more Asian artists bring their cultural influence and perspective to the NFT space, there will be a lot more diversity, not just in the [background] of artists but in the content of the art itself,” she added.

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