Wizara's ARQAAM: Blockchain's first Arab-led, pan-regional NFT art exhibit
As the information age propels us deeper into uncharted territory, the intensity of technological mutation has provided new means for culture to be heard, seen, and become.
New popular media forms like TikTok, Clubhouse, and Discord have revolutionised how we engage with the virtual, which has created new forms of relationships between cultures and changed how we perceive memory, the body, and space.
Despite this, the saturation of data has also led to collective blindness. With the algorithm now a fundamental part of rational choice, our own critical abilities are being paralysed. At an increasing rate, people's convictions of the world are now determined by their technological sightline.
"As the metaverse inches ever closer, how we view the world is constantly shifting, influenced by the blurring of identity and culture"
So how can one stay ahead given such frenetic innovation? Can one actually stay ahead? Such questions have plagued minds for decades. Writing in Time Magazine 50 years ago, R.Z. Sheppard remarked: “In much the way that fish cannot conceptualise water or birds, man barely understands his Infosphere, that encircling layer of electronic smog.” For most of the world’s population, this analogy continues to be relevant today.
The global digital divide, viciously exposed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, has highlighted the consequences should parts of the population not be given the same level of informational access. Once again, it seems that the Global South remains lagging behind.
Yet, as The New Arab sat down with Cairo-based platform Wizara, the first blockchain-based platform built by artists for artists, to chat about their exhibition ARQAAM, it is evident that outside of the cabled servers of Silicon Valley, signs have emerged as to how we – the post-colonial generation – can lead the way into this brave new world.
Wizara is the first blockchain-based platform for artists predominantly based in the Global South, with ARQAAM its first NFT-led exhibition.
Its aim: to foster a new paradigm for the African, Arab, and Asian digital arts scene by placing its faith in blockchain which, at least in its infant stage, purports to be the next great equaliser.
So what is blockchain? It’s no doubt been a word you’ve heard resonating from the boardroom to the pub table.
Blockchain is a network of digital ledgers, completely incorruptible, which gives clear provenance of any transaction set within a computer network of databases, accessible by anyone within the network.
As a system, blockchain is virtually impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system, giving total power to those who trade within it. In the case of Wizara and ARQAAM, artists who sell their work as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) on blockchain have complete autonomy over their work, and buyers can be sure that the artist’s work is theirs, unable to be counterfeited.
At this point, the word ARQAAM is of note. As co-founder Adham Hafez explained, the word in Arabic translates to “digits”, and is a typical example of how our Eurocentric world has co-opted other civilisation’s achievements to the point their source is forgotten.
Every day we use Arabic numerals, they underpin our everyday life. Yet “its history and knowledge of sharing and coexistence” is a passing fact, given little importance. ARQAAM playfully rejects this singular narrative of historical events, rejects a solely Western lens, and provides a contemporary – perhaps even futuristic – way for artists to forge and define their own legacy.
Focusing not on specificity nor theme, the project rather interrogates the shared questions that shape the team of artists: what is the future of the body in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), what will our presence be, how is performance shifting, how is memory stored and how can we best mould the machine into imagining our future. Not us vs. 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 moment of entering into conversations, naming and renaming definitions, and working collaboratively”.
"In much the way that fish cannot conceptualise water or birds, man barely understands his Infosphere, that encircling layer of electronic smog"
In his groundbreaking collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B Du Bois first described “double consciousness” as an inherent trait of racialised minorities within oppressive systems, yet necessarily interact with it.
Particularly relevant to the post-colonial generation, this has afforded us two ways of viewing the world: through the lens of the oppressive majority, and as an outsider with a distinct culture. This double gaze is at the core of Wizara and ARQAAM: to look back into the past, examine our present, to investigate the future.
One such piece that epitomises this is Lamia Gouda’s puppet Quarantina. The latter is a belly dancer taking a car ride in Cairo’s KitKat neighbourhood, searching for the lost remnants of its infamous cabaret. She adorns the traditional garb bedlah – a fitted bra, a hip belt, and a full-length skirt.
Bobbing along, she searches for past companions, for adventure, yet finds only the apathy of urban surroundings: fast fashion, soulless eateries, banks. Hers is a lost profession, lost to the occupation of knowledge. Her status as a proponent of raas al baladi, now resigned to oriental art and colonial aesthetics.
Quarantina proves that many artists in the Global South have always been in quarantine. Facing both local and a global disconnect from their art, their only solace can be found within platforms without politics and judgement. Taking refuge in blockchain, Quarantina hopes her art form is not lost or at least remembered for what it once was.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of ARQAAM however comes from Egyptian multi-disciplinary artist and coder, Ahmed El Shaer.
Engaging in a conversation with AI, Ahmed’s dialogue with the machine deals with how a machine could conceptualise paradise. By using software from M.I.T where El Shaer translates pieces of text from holy texts (both mono and polytheistic) into code, the software then turns the code into images. Phenomenally, Ahmed did not input any images into the software, only text.
The below representation is the result of how the machine imagines our own reckoning and creates important metaphysical and eschatological questions for us to think about.
As El Shaer explained, what excited him most about the project was his faith imparted on the machine. “You never knew what comes out. We always think it is us who will come up with visual representations”. His body of work at ARQAAM proves that our cock-sure certainty about life after death might 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 entering into conversations, naming and renaming definitions, and working collaboratively"
Of course, establishing Wizara and ARQAAM has not come without challenges. There remain many artists who are resistant towards NFTs and blockchain, largely due to the electrical stress it places upon the environment. Wizara has endeavoured to find a way to circumvent this, and by using a form of blockchain called Polygon there is a way, as co-founder Adham Hafez told The New Arab, “to do it green”.
It’s more likely resistance will come from established structures on the internet. One day before the exhibition was due to go live, Hafez told The New Arab that their Instagram account had been shadowbanned, meaning that any form of promotion received little impact.
For those working in digital activism, such silencing 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 guidelines” would engage in a number of different tactics to be heard. Once again, the irony of evading “the algorithm” – first created by Muslim polymath Al-Khwarizmi – was not lost.
As the metaverse inches ever closer, how we view the world is constantly shifting, influenced by the blurring of identity and culture. As Wizara proves, such shifts demand us to create unique cultural products that not only have a ‘shelf life' but can provide the building blocks for new creative ontologies.
This responsibility has not been lost on the post-colonial generation, who now see cultural objects and formations as a potent weapon against Eurocentrism.
Through a nexus of cultural expression, historical oppression, and the increasing dystopia of urban centres, we have the power to affect the possibility of space and time and allow us to reimagine silenced histories and previously forgotten assemblages. Wizara is one such trailblazer who has taken up this fateful task.
Benjamin Ashraf is a non-visiting research fellow at the University of Jordan's Department of International Studies and a researcher at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab's Editorial Team.