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by Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr.

Behind the thought-provoking series from artist Leathabo Huma.

If you’ve ever spoken to Lethabo Huma, it’s evident how she’s able to translate her radiant and wonderfully bright aura into the creation of her work. The South African-based artist elegantly nurtures worlds within her art that allow girls like her to feel seen, resulting in the existence of a safe haven and emotionally-charged narrative of acceptance and understanding self-worth. “I think contribution wise, my work serves as a representation of Black women and people that look like me or creates work that I could relate to, which is something I didn’t see a lot of when I first started,” she shares, speaking on how her art is responding and contributing to the times.

In a digital space that offered hopes of decentralization and more freedom for the artist-self, it’s almost beyond antithetical to its existence as we see the parallels of controlled hierarchies, misrepresentation, and an inexplicable sense that our understanding of the Metaverse and NFTs might just be flawed. Yet, the remarkable artist Lethabo is using her work to counter all the odds and serve as a testament to the possibility of a digital renaissance, all while nurturing space for open and honest dialogue with her community—a truly stunning hallmark.

Hey, Lethabo! Thank you for making time today to speak with me, and before diving into the deeper stuff: how are you and what’ve you been up to lately?

I’m doing okay, it’s just really cold here, it’s winter here in South Africa. I’ve just been dealing with learning a lot more about myself and just been in a phase where I’m giving a lot more attention to my emotions, which is also part of how I’ve been creating. It’s really wild because my work has been looking really weird lately, especially since I’ve been experimenting with a new project I’m working on called Bloom. I’m working on the second part of it. The first was really amazing because it dealt with a lot more different things from what I’d usually do. So, it’s been a lot of reflection on who I am, what I want, and the messages I’m spreading through my work.

Given your art has always painted itself as very joyful and expressed very radiant, serene auras, would you say paying attention to your emotions has allowed you to be more open and vulnerable in your work? And how has it informed the creative aesthetic?

Yes, before I was very guarded with my emotions but now I’ve found it’s so freeing to be vulnerable, as scary as it might be. This is exactly how I’m feeling and this is how I’m going to share it with the world. Bloom is a continuous story about my life, so it’s an animated 2D art piece that is an NFT within an NFT within another one. With the first chapter, it’s a portrait of myself creating something on an IPad, and when you zoom into the IPad, there’s another piece which also has another piece within it. It keeps me nervous but excited because I have the freedom to speak about anything and everything in my life. I also wanted to bring the people that love my work together as part of the story. I also started writing about how I was feeling, so journaling became a big part of the creative process for Bloom.

How is your art responding, disrupting, or contributing to the local and global art scene, especially with the new age of NFTs and the Metaverse?

I think contributing-wise, my work serves as a representation of Black women and people that look like me or creates work that I could relate to, which is something I didn’t see a lot of when I first started. It’s a story about an African girl going through life which stands away from the political. It holds a very intimate and personal view of being a Black girl in her 20s, and what that might entail. I think the fact that I am African and sharing my experience, and using my work as a visual diary, definitely contributes to the theme of also reclaiming our culture and finding appropriate ways of portrayal.

With that too, looking at how artists like yourself have been viewed over time, how are you able to subvert any form of pigeonholing that categorizes you as simply a Black artist or your work as just Black art?

It’s certainly not something I have considered myself as, but I always wanted to be seen as an artist, though I wouldn’t want to shy away from who I am. I want to serve as a form of representation for my people, so if me being labelled that way helps a girl like me feel seen then that’s also okay.

The conversation spanning the last few years with Black artists, and simply artists, has always been about disrupting the system or establishing new structures, and NFTs have certainly done that. However, we’ve also seen cases of profit grabs, rug pulls, and communities using the NFTs are space in ways that affect the world’s view on digital art and the direction it’s moving in. What are your thoughts on how it might affect the art world and the artists who are actually striving to make authentic work?

I feel like NFTs are definitely doing what they’re meant to do which is disrupt a lot of the current art systems, and what I really love about NFTs, in relation to digital artists, is that we have a space where you truly have control over the work you do. It’s easier to fit in and feel accepted within the NFT space, to some extent, and also have the ability to protect your work. It’s amazing for that reason. My concern, for artists, is that there is a great sense of instant gratification, and artists fall into the trap of feeling very pressured to sell work fast without actually putting in themselves and true thoughts. A lot of bad vibes. I think it creates a lot of negative feedback on their mental health or how they might feel about their work.

Is disruption always a good thing, in this case? Or would you say is too early to judge?

I still feel like we also still need to watch how it behaves, right down to the market. It’s always good to give it some growing space and watch the patterns. How is it performing? How are artists responding? How is society reacting to it?

And that being said, what is the most important thing the art world needs to understand about Web3, NFTs, and the Metaverse?

I would say you don’t have to be a part of the space. I think a lot of the time the backlash comes from people feeling the need to join in because it’s popular. My advice would be to learn about it, take your time, and understand there’s time to figure out how you want to navigate. In regards to the art world, I think there needs to be an understanding that we aren’t trying to replace the physical art space. NFTs are simply a bridge into the digital which go hand in hand.

What’s fascinating too is that this came out of nowhere for much of the art world and what really took people by surprise is that the artworks being sold for crazy prices were by artists we’d never heard of! There’s no history behind it or notoriety, in comparison to the way artists in the contemporary world would develop their career. Would you say then that the conversation is less about the art now but more about the money and profits that can be made?

NFTs are still relatively new, right? There’s still a long way to go in terms of bringing people together to experience the art, in comparison to simply buying, selling, or bidding on it. Earlier when I joined this space, I had that concern. I did a 3D group exhibition with some artists where we were able to truly experience the space, and I think that’s what would help a lot in terms of making it more than just the money that can be made. Yes, it allows for easier connectivity and takes away the need for physical travel to experience art. I think once people start looking at it, in the same way, we have exhibitions and artists speaking on their work… as a community gathering, I think then the worry of it simply being for-profit would be eliminated.

One of the ideas that was originally exciting about cryptocurrencies was decentralisation or global currency. Similarly, it seemed like NFTs offered a way of decentralising the art world or breaking down its hierarchy or old systems and structures, as mentioned earlier.  Though, speaking with other artists, and simply watching the space, the same thing is happening with the nurturing of certain hierarchies or defining systems of who does what or who controls what….

I think we’re still watching everything unfold, but us removing that middleman which is the gallery really helps because now you’re able to build your own connections and directly connect with your audience, and have control over your brand. In terms of removing that hierarchy, I’m sensing its development in form of cliques and those little groups, but I think in some part, for att to be valuable there has to be some sense of exclusivity. But yes, there are certain groups that make it hard for other artists to fit in and become a part of the space, or at least succeed in the space they’re in.

What are your hopes for your career and work down the tunnel?

I think apart from Bloom, I’m looking to connect with people a lot more, both in and out of the NFT space. Last year was hard because of COVID, but this year, I definitely want to connect on a deeper level and create work that matters to both myself and the larger world. There’s a focus on purposeful collaboration.

Follow Lethabo Huma on Instagram here.

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