Awais was born in 1998 to an art-loving family in Lahore, Pakistan. At an early age, he was introduced to art by his mother, Rukhsana Gul, a graduate from the Karachi School of Art, who worked with oils and pastels to create soft imagery of landscapes and figures. His father, Ramzan, was a pioneer in carving and made wooden frames by hand at his framing workshop. Slowly building connections and through savings, he established an art gallery and named it after Ejaz, his youngest brother. To this day, Ejaz Art Gallery is a mainstay in Lahore’s art scene.
Mehvash: Tell us how art informed your career choices.
Awais: Growing up in an art-loving environment, I immersed myself in it. I started visiting the gallery frequently. In 2020, I completed my undergraduate in Business Management from the University of Roehampton, London, with a first-class degree and started working at the gallery as an assistant curator and as social media manager. The time at University challenged me to think innovatively. In the last semester of my final year, I opted for the ‘Managing Innovation’ module and learned about different innovation theories. In particular, the Blue Ocean strategy—the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand. It focused on gaining a sustainable competitive advantage by tapping an uncontested market space.
Considering my art-related background, I naturally kept brainstorming ways to apply it in the art industry. I saw the opportunity in March 2021 through Christie’s auction of Art NFT by Beeple that sold for $69m. The technology movement convinced me to launch NFTOAR, Pakistan’s first NFT gallery.
M: For our readers who don’t know, what exactly is an NFT?
A: An NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token. Unlike Bitcoin and other fungible tokens that can be traded or exchanged for one another, NFTs are unique and non-interchangeable. Because of their unique properties, NFTs are digital assets representing objects, either real-world or digital, like art, music, and videos. Any digital item can become a digital asset through the minting process that encodes its information on the blockchain. An underlying software functioning as a digital ledger, the blockchain is tamper-proof in recording information of the NFTs bought and sold online frequently using cryptocurrency.
Any digital item— a meme, photograph, tweet, etc., can become an NFT, and the possibilities of NFTs and their applicability are endless
M: So tell us how art NFTs can be viewed differently to NFTs of memes and other things? What are all the things that can be put up as NFTs?
A: Although NFTs have been around since 2014, they have recently gained a lot of popularity, especially in the art domain. In March 2021, Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, made history through the first-ever auction of digital art NFT. His work titled ‘Everydays: The first 5,000 days’ sold for $69m at Christie’s. This monumental auction paved the way for digital artists who worked at design agencies and elsewhere to enter into the NFT space that provided an opportunity for promotion and creative freedom, unlike other traditional mediums. Any digital item—a meme, photograph, tweet, etc., can become an NFT, and the possibilities of NFTs and their applicability are endless.
M: Tell us about NFTOAR?
A: The technology movement convinced me to launch NFTOAR, Pakistan’s first NFT gallery, drawing inspiration for the brand identity from the blue ocean strategy theory. I am the curator of NFTOAR, and Ahmed Bilal, the other co-founder, is the creative director.
Launched in August 2021, NFTOAR promotes and preserves art, both physical and digital, using blockchain technology and NFTs. It provides digital artists a platform to showcase their work, contradicting the traditional art gallery approach that only promotes those working in a physical art medium. NFTOAR bridges the gap between the physical and the metaphysical art worlds.
M: Do you think audiences are ready for NFT? Don’t you think older collectors with money want a physical piece of art? Have you encountered any known collectors who are ready to embrace this concept?
A: Mainstream adoption of NFTs is yet to happen, but understanding and acceptance are increasing day by day. Of course, many art enthusiasts and collectors are older and not tech-savvy, which makes it difficult for them to accept and invest in the idea of owning a digital piece of art, and not physical. Lack of understanding and government support also adds to their uncertainty and confusion. However, we have encountered various collectors since we launched, who seem interested in the idea of decentralised finance and digital ownership.
M: The younger audience: to your knowledge, are they embracing this concept, considering they are more tech-savvy? I have asked some young people and the reviews are mixed. A lot of them view NFTs as ‘scam’. What is your take on that?
A: To my knowledge, the younger audience researching this technology movement with an open mind is embracing it. We are entering into the digital renaissance that opens new business models such as NFTOAR, creates opportunities for creators, and democratises art. People that do not understand blockchain technology and the intrinsic properties of NFTs instead of their apparent extrinsic properties label them as ‘right-click-save’ images or a scam. Hence, they fall for scams and generalise that all NFT projects are scams.
M: Tell us about your personal acquisition of NFTs.
A: As a 23-year-old tech-savvy guy who loves art, NFTs make art much more accessible and affordable for me. Since becoming involved in the NFT space, I have invested in a few projects and recently purchased my first art NFT by Ali Sabet, an Iranian-American contemporary artist. The NFT is part of a series of 4,850 hand-painted generated works called the Tokyo Punks, inspired by Sabet's first trip to Tokyo as a child. He saw the punk movement of the early '80s at such an early age that those styles, colours, and shapes became imprinted in his mind and heart. As someone fascinated by Japanese culture and artists, I liked the story of how his visit to Tokyo shaped him as an artist, and I loved viewing the art through that lens. Also, considering the NFT was part of a series of works, the art was much more affordable for 0.1 Ethereum ($270) than the usual physical work by artists in the traditional art market. The background story, the art, and ‘art is the utility and love is the roadmap’ message for collectors propelled me to acquire Tokyo Punk #3631.
M: Apparently Ejaz Gallery has put up an artist’s work up for acquisition on an NFT portal. Tell us about that.
A: On 10th December 2021, NFTOAR collaborated with Ejaz Art Gallery to exhibit an NFT in the ‘A Slice of Life’ exhibition. We worked with Hamza Qazi, one of the participating artists, on creating a digital derivation of his work. Being a visual artist, he wanted to create a short video NFT that complements the physical work and expands his visual language. We helped him with his creation and exhibited the NFT titled ‘The Swaddling Girl’ alongside the physical work, which conveyed a different meaning altogether. One was static imagery on canvas, and the other was a short video playing on loop in an iPad, showing the changing colours of the visual. The blanket around the female figure changed from blue to orange, expressing the various emotions of solitude and terror throughout the Covid-19 time.
The idea was to educate the viewers, including other visual artists, to broaden the possibility of depicting their visuals. Also, to encourage them to think beyond the traditional art landscapes to which they have become accustomed. The ‘Swaddling Girl’ NFT is available to view/purchase on Opensea, the largest NFT marketplace.
M: Tell us a bit about your upcoming exhibition at Ejaz Art Gallery. Walk us through it.
A: Currently, I am preparing a manifesto and onboarding sponsors and partners for a first-of-its-kind NFT event in March. I am working with Zain Naqvi from Alter, a collectible platform that sold Pakistan's first NFT meme for 20 ETH ($50,000), to co-curate the event at Ejaz Art Gallery alongside Saks Afridi, a contemporary sci-fi NFT artist based abroad. Arriving in Pakistan soon, Saks will curate the three-day digital exhibition. As part of the event, it will feature works of prominent Pakistani/Pakistani origin artists within the NFT space. We will also invite guest speakers to talk about the importance of this technology movement for art and society.
M: Apparently a respected senior artist, Saeed Akhtar, is on board with you. Do you think his involvement will give you access to other senior artists? Have you reached out to any?
A: Umar Saeed, Saeed Akhtar’ son and the representative of the Saeed Akhtar Studio, often faces authenticity issues because of the large number of fakes circulating in the market. Working with him, we plan to list for the auction ‘The Enchantress’ NFT on the Foundation platform soon. Through this NFT auction, we will be taking a step forward towards preserving his legacy and encapsulating mainstream art in a system. As of yet, we have not approached any other senior artist. However, I think they will be interested in working with us to resolve the prevalent issue of authenticity, and to promote their work to a wider audience in the digital art space.