RIYADH: Saudi Arabia hosted the Middle East’s first digital art forum and made its debut showcase of non-fungible tokens in the region.

Auction house Sotheby’s, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture’s Visual Arts Commission, hosted the event alongside the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in Riyadh between Feb. 25-27.

While the biennale brings together Saudi and international artists in a celebration of contemporary culture, the digital art forum brought together a slightly different audience.

Through a series of panel events and workshops with leaders in the NFT sphere, amateur and digital-native visitors were able to access real-time updates on what was happening in the world of NFTs, understand digital wallet security, and fully participate in the Metaverse.

A NFT is a digital asset that represents real-world objects like art. It cannot be replicated and there is proof on the blockchain that it is one-of-a-kind. Anyone in the world can look at it for reference and it protects artists and their work that is minted as a NFT.

The offline space at the forum hosted 10 prominent NFTs. Charting the history of NFTs, from their inception seven years ago until now, the dedicated program was aimed at bringing together artists, collectors, and curators.

“Digital art provides emerging and established art practitioners and collectors with new ways to experience, collect and create with art peers around the world,” said commission CEO Dina Amin.“As the Kingdom’s visual arts sector continues to rapidly flourish, we’re excited to partner with leading global experts such as Sotheby’s to bring this unique opportunity to engage with NFTs and digital art in Riyadh.”

Saudi artist Ahaad Al-Amoudi, whose 10-second video NFT “The Mirage,” features a split-screen of a dog running and a man riding a horse with audio of an Arab man speaking in English, on a loop.

He said: “The dogs, the more they love you, the harder they will run for you on the day of the race. It’s about relationships—it’s not all about training.”

Visitors were encouraged to scan the QR code accompanying each piece and even purchase them by using an app like OpenSea, which calls itself “the world’s first and largest NFT marketplace.”

There has been a buzz around NFTs since Saudi Arabia was on lockdown, during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, but it was mostly reserved for “crypto bros” and people who appeared to have too much free time online. In 2022, the metaverse became a reality potentially worth getting into.

With Saudi Arabia being so connected and smartphone usage being so widespread, Sebastian Fahey, managing director of Sotheby’s Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, said it made sense to host the first NFT forum of its kind in the Kingdom.

“We thought it was a perfect marriage of the local community plus also the digitally native community that is building (being built),” he told Arab News. “And, as could be seen by the questions coming through the panel today, there is already a very established digital art appreciating and collecting community in Riyadh and in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a very connected country, so it makes sense to be here.

“What we’re seeing from our perspective as an auction house, Sotheby’s itself is a 278-year-old auction house and, throughout its history, we’ve been using our DNA of curating the best of a certain genre. And this movement, this medium of digital art, NFTs, has been having a meteoric rise over particularly the last year and a half or so.”

The exhibition was world-class and had, what he called, “some of the most important and historically significant artists in the NFT space, going all the way back to the very first NFT minted, which is the seminal work called Quantum by Kevin McCoy that was minted on May 3, 2014.”

Edward Gibbs, chairman of Sotheby’s Middle East and India, said that the educational focus on NFTs was a “natural next step” in the auction house’s history of supporting innovative cultural programs and was a testament to its longstanding commitment to Saudi Arabia.

“We are delighted to be hosting this first of its kind project at the Diriyah Biennale as a partner of the Visual Arts Commission and Sotheby’s,” said Aya Al-Bakree, CEO at the Diriyah Biennale Foundation. “The biennale is a hub of arts engagement and learning which inspires creative dialogue across cultures while developing the local ecosystem.”

The biennale runs until March 11 and showcases some of the world’s leading artists.

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