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Meet the Artist at the Forefront of the Fight Against Racism in NFTs

Artist Drue Kataoka with her Ambrosia Artworks

Even as NFTs continue to make headlines across the globe, racism and a severe lack of representation continue to rile the industry, albeit quietly. Amid the frenzy of million-dollar sales and high-profile celebrity drops, many of these issues have been conveniently brushed under the carpet. But, now, famous Asian-American artist, activist, and technologist, Drue Kataoka is helping usher in a new dawn in the NFT art world—a diverse and equitable space harbouring hopes of a brighter future.  

In an exclusive interview with NFTevening, Kataoka, also the CEO of Drue Kataoka Studios, told us, “While NFTs have been heralded as a democratizing force in the art world, the space has allowed for the same systemic biases we see in our society today to proliferate.” 

Artist Drue Kataoka with her Ambrosia Artworks
Drue Kataoka is an artist, technologist, activist, and the founder of Drue Kataoka Studios. Credits: Spencer A. Brown

NFTs, racism, and a lack of representation

It’s true—many welcomed NFTs for their potential to create an equitable, diverse, and inclusive space for artists. Unfortunately, reality tells a different story. 

Take for example Beeple’s ‘Everydays: The First 5,000 Days‘, the NFT that created history with its $69 million sale in March 2021. Since then, the work has received much acclaim, even beyond the NFT and crypto space. But, what is little talked about is its disturbing racist and sexist imagery. From the misogynistic portrayal of Hillary Clinton to racist Asian sketches, the 5,000-image collage features some questionable content. 

More recently, Jungle Freaks’ artist, George Trosley was slammed for his racist cartoons from the ‘70s. Some even alleged that the NFT collection features Nazi symbolism. Racism aside, NFTs are not doing well on the representation front either. 

Drue Kataoka thinks Representation is severely lacking

Currently, many of the projects in the NFT space lack diversity and representation. Hit NFT collectibles, The Sneaky Vampire Syndicate, for instance, caters only to cis-gendered men. In fact, the blue-chip NFT project, Bored Ape Yacht club is no better. While the space has transgender artists like Fewocious and projects like World of Women raising funds for women’s charities, they only make up a small fraction of the industry.

“Representation in the NFT space is unfortunately severely lacking,” Kataoka says, echoing Art Tactic’s NFT Art Market report from November. “For the past year and a half, men continue to account for the majority of NFT art sales, representing 77 per cent of all total sales while women stood at a meagre 5 per cent.”

She added that while she finds the figures “extremely troubling”, it isn’t “surprising”. The traditional art industry too is notoriously famous for under-representing female artists. “This year, of the 100 top-grossing artists sold in the day and evening sales, 14 were women—representing only 14 per cent of the market,” says Kataoka.

As the NFT space becomes yet another boy’s club, is there a solution? 

“While it may be a matter of who generally invests the most in the NFT-crypto ecosystem, there are structural changes that can be made to better empower and uplift female artists in the space,” says Kataoka.

This includes collections and exhibitions focusing on works by women, exclusive marketplace drops, or partnerships with female artists. All these can help address the “gender imbalance,” she added.

Drue Kataoka is fighting racism and sexism with her art

Recently, Kataoka collaborated with over 40 artists and technologists to create an NFT for social justice. Titled, ‘Will Your Heart Pass the Test?’, the NFT took inspiration from a myth described in the ancient Egyptian text, ‘Book of the Dead’. The text depicted a test where a dead person’s heart is weighed against a feather to decide their entry into the afterlife. 

“My piece was also created in response to the growing number of racist and sexist imagery within the NFT ecosystem,” Kataoka says. “‘Will Your Heart Pass the Test?’ is a call for introspection, reminding viewers that while the many technologies we take for granted today foster a more equitable playing field in communications and content creation, hate continues to thrive in these spaces.”

A still from Will Your Heart Pass the Test? NFFT by artist Drue Kataoka
A still from Will Your Heart Pass the Test? – An NFT by Drue Kataoka Studios x ILMxLab. Credits: www.Drue.net

“There have been missed opportunities to confront these social ills as we hide behind the collective “we” and evade individual responsibility,” she further adds. “The truth is, these are problems of our making and at the end of our lives, how will we be judged for letting them go on unfettered?”

Will Your Heart Pass the Test?

Kataoka created the stunning piece in partnership with ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment studio. Lucasfilm is famous for its work with films such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones, and more. 

Will Your Heart Pass the Test? is a technological marvel, with each frame taking 20 minutes to digitally render. Women from five inspiring organizations spearheaded this project. Besides, a team from across London, Singapore, the San Francisco Bay area, and Las Vegas helped create the artwork.

Phillips auctioned the piece from 8-15 December for $252,000. More importantly, all proceeds from the sales go to two significant American civil rights organizations, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and Stop AAPI Hate. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. has been an influential figure in Kataoka’s life from when she was younger. She describes him as a “​​big profound thinker” and a “challenging, and often uncomfortable thinker.”

Furthermore, she took inspiration in part from her many conversations with his youngest daughter and CEO of The King Center, Reverend Dr Bernice A. King.

“​​The proliferation of racist and sexist imagery in the NFT space is deeply concerning,” Rev. Dr Bernice said. “The King Center and I are proud to participate in this historic NFT artwork. Drue Kataoka shares our vision that powerful emerging technologies like blockchain and AI should be bent towards the purpose of social justice, not just commercialization and militarization.”

More about the artist

Drue Kataoka has been an active presence in the digital art space for years. True to her belief “Art is technology and technology is art”, her works often use virtual reality and mobile technology. 

As a young artist, Kataoka attended Stanford University instead of an art school to learn more about technology. While she joined galleries after graduation, sexual harassment and “very exploitative” and “unworkable business terms” led her to leave the job. Eventually, she founded her own art studio, modelled after “the successful tech startups” of her classmates, she said.

Celestial Lace Sculpture by Drue Kataoka along with artist Drue Kataoka
Celestial Lace, Sculpture by Drue Kataoka Studios in mirror-polished stainless steel. Credits: www.Drue.net

“We started literally from zero 20 years ago, when people did not believe that the San Francisco Bay Area could sustain a major independent art studio, let alone a woman-led or Asian American woman-led one,” she recalls. “Fast forward to today, we now have a global footprint.”

One of Kataoka’s notable artworks is ‘UP!’, which was featured during the first zero-gravity art exhibit at the International Space Station in 2008. Interestingly, the medium used was ink, paper, and time dilation. She also famously made a piece for Japanese Princess Takamado honouring Japan.

Artwork UP at International Space Station
‘UP!’ in the first zero-gravity art exhibit at the International Space Station. Credits: www.Drue.net

Kataoka on NFTs

As an early adopter of virtual reality tech, NFTs were a natural next step for Kataoka. She dropped her first NFT collection—’In the Club: #StopAsianHate’—in May this year. All the proceeds from the sales were donated to Asian Americans’ Catalyst Fund for Justice.

“It [NFT tech] solves a major problem that existed before with digital art: documenting provenance, ownership, and uniqueness of a digital artwork,” she explained. “NFTs can represent the next wave of tech for good, standing at the intersection of art and activism.”

She further noted that like the blockchain industry, the spirit of NFTs lies in the freedom of expression and decentralization. She had the following to say to under-represented communities aspiring to enter the NFT art space:

“For artists that have been marginalized by the traditional art world due to sexism or racism, the NFT ecosystem presents an exciting opportunity,” she said. “However, the space will be what we choose to make of it—a new, more just frontier, or a refuge for the same toxic biases we inherited from say social media. It’s still very early for the NFT space, and we have the power to shape it.”

We certainly agree. Thank you so much to Drue Kataoka for talking to us at NFTevening. We look forward to seeing her stay in this space for a long time.

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