First NFT art forum to launch in Saudi Arabia

The Riyadh event is a collaboration between Sotheby's and the Ministry of Culture as part of the Diriyah Biennale public programme

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Sotheby’s and the Visual Arts Commission of the Ministry of Culture in Saudi Arabia have announced a new digital arts forum in the kingdom as part of the ongoing public programme for Diriyah Biennale.

The conference, called Digital Art Forum, which is a first of its kind for the kingdom, will take place from February 25 to 27 in Riyadh's Jax District where the biennial art exhibition that opened in December is being held.

What to expect from Saudi Arabia's first digital art forum

The programme includes an exhibition of artworks by big names in the crypto art world, including the anonymous artist Pak, whose NFT project The Merge sold for $91.8 million on Nifty Gateway in December; Michah Dowbak, also known as Mad Dog Jones, whose self-replicating cyberpunk creation REPLICATOR sold at Phillips for $4.1 million last year; and Erick Calderon, or Snowfro, whose works are also being shown at the newly opened Seattle NFT Museum.

Scroll through the gallery above to see photos of artworks that will be included in the exhibition.

Ahaad Al Amoudi, a Saudi artist who ventured into NFTs through Gallery Bawa from Kuwait in April 2021, is also taking part.

A line of experts in NFTs and blockchain technology will be speaking at the forum, details of which have been vaguely outlined so far. These include Anne Spalter, an American artist who works with digital media and who has also developed the digital fine arts programmes at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Also scheduled to speak is Micol, the founder of Vertical CryptoArt, which offers, among many services, NFT consultancy and curatorial advisory. Most recently, the company has presented a two-day pop-up exhibition of 18 artists at Frieze Los Angeles.

The forum will take on broad topics within digital art, including an examination of the evolving NFT ecosystem and the artistic movements within it, as well as buying habits and trends specific to Saudi Arabia.

See photos from the opening of Diriyah Biennale here:

Educational aspects of the forum will include workshops on how to explore the metaverse, how to set up a wallet and how to buy an NFT. The programme does not seem to tackle recent issues within the crypto space, however, such as the proliferation of scams and environmental concerns surrounding blockchain technology.

How the idea for the forum took shape

Despite increasing reports of fraudulent projects in the crypto art space, the interest around digital art and NFTs is not waning in the Middle East. In the UAE, for example, NFT art exhibitions continue to show and Art Dubai has added a dedicated digital art section to its coming programme in March.

Sotheby’s interest in the kingdom grew after a delegation from the auction house visited Riyadh for the opening of the Diriyah Biennale in December. A spokesperson explained that the exhibition “felt like the perfect setting for launching the first showcase of NFTs in the kingdom”.

Part of the goal of being in Saudi Arabia, the spokesperson said, is to “lend support” to the Visual Arts Commission’s education programmes around art.

Digital artworks at the Seattle NFT Museum, which recently opened in January. AFP

Since April of last year, Sotheby’s has ramped up its involvement in digital art. So far, the auction house says its sales in the NFT category has reached about $100 million for 100 works.

Over the past few months, Sotheby’s has opened an NFT department and launched a dedicated platform called Sotheby’s Metaverse. Two of its employees, Sebastian Fahey, executive lead for Sotheby’s Metaverse, and Michael Bouhanna, co-head of digital art sales, will be speaking on panels for the forum in Saudi Arabia.

Recent concerns over NFTs

Despite the rise of NFTs, digital art developments have not been without problems. Among them are reports of scams where developers promise investors digital collectibles and other perks such as giveaways and metaverse activities, accepting money before disappearing and cutting off forms of communication, including Twitter and Discord accounts.

Last week, the UK tax authority HM Revenue and Customs arrested three people over suspicions of VAT fraud of £1.4 million ($1.9m) involving 250 fake companies. The authority seized three NFT-backed works as part of the investigation.

A recent study from the US treasury noted how the nature of NFTs could aid in the movement of illicit funds easily. “The ability to transfer some NFTs via the internet without concern for geographic distance … nearly instantaneously makes digital art susceptible to exploitation by those seeking to launder illicit proceeds of crime, because the movement of value can be accomplished without incurring potential financial, regulatory, or investigative costs of physical shipment,” the report explained.

The rules for NFTs are no different from those we have for anything else we offer

It also stated that criminals could use NFT purchases for “self-laundering”, allowing them to “transact with themselves to create records of sales on the blockchain”.

Such issues are more glaring when it comes to sales and transactions from anonymous or less reputable institutions.

In many ways, the promise of NFTs democratising the art market has been blunted, as it seems that mediators, such as auction houses and galleries, are still running the biggest deals in the space and depend on their vetting processes to assure potential buyers.

In Sotheby’s case, for example, a spokesperson highlighted that the NFTs sold through its Metaverse and auctions have been selected by their specialists to ensure that they are authentic, a process similar to physical artworks and objects.

“The rules for NFTs are no different from those we have for anything else we offer,” the Sotheby's representative said.

Updated: February 20, 2022, 9:00 AM