Art to Enjoy: NFTs or Contemporary Egyptian Art?

Six years ago, me and my now wife went on our first date. We dropped by the Townhouse Gallery (now known as Access) in downtown Cairo on a hot July evening to see a new exhibition while awkwardly chatting and eagerly finding out more about each other. Afterwards, we searched through the Townhouse’s selection of affordable prints and paintings in their shop, a room with framed paintings piled up against the walls and stacked up to the ceiling. Amidst the patchwork of colours and sharp edges of the frames, two small framed paintings by a local artist called Mina Noshy stuck out to us.

Access art gallery in downtown Cairo
Access Art Space’s collection of affordable paintings and prints. Via Thomas Pinn.

For some reason, these two prints hidden behind and between piles of stacked of art spoke to us, they reminded us of long-lost friends and they instilled in us a sense of optimism, community and belonging. We spent more time with these two small paintings than we did with the vast exhibition in the hall next door and they made a lasting impression on us both.

Fast forward two years and we decided to get engaged. Racking my brain as to what to get as a meaningful and lasting engagement present, I remembered these two paintings we had built such a connection with. Some years after originally seeing them, I miraculously found these two paintings still available at the Townhouse Gallery hidden behind piles of framed paintings stacked up against the wall. Giving one to her and keeping the other, the idea was that when we marry and move in together, the two paintings can be reunited in our new home. Fast forward another year, as we moved in together, our two treasured paintings were reunited. Hung on the wall, everyday we have a reminder of how we met, the fun we have had, and our journey together. The paintings have been with us the whole way and shall remain so, even as we pass them on to our future children when we are no longer around.

Access art gallery in downtown Cairo
Access Art Space’s collection of affordable paintings and prints. Via Thomas Pinn.

We have a history and a deep connection with these paintings, and they are enjoyed everyday, hung upon the wall for all to see. While art is of course subjective, the question remains, could someone ever have such a connection with a multi-million dollar NFT of a gimmicky cartoon of an ape that only exists on the internet?

Non-Fungible What?

NFT stands for non-fungible token, which the Collins English Dictionary defines as a ‘digital certificate of ownership of a unique asset such as an artwork or a collectible’. It is not a new medium of art but a sales mechanism and form of digital ownership used mostly to collect digital art, in which the ownership is catalogued on the Ethereum blockchain. NFTs became a household, if rather unevenly understood, term in 2021 and 2022 following on from a JPEG sold by the artist Beeple for a staggering $69 million dollars and other high price tag purchases, sometimes of memes or even tweets, for comparably absurd sums.

Artwork by the artist Beeple entitled Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold for a staggering 69 million US dollars at Christie’s. Via Beeple.

However, you can just as easily right-click and save the piece of art as a JPEG and essentially ‘own’ and view the original just like the people that have coughed up millions of dollars for these NFTs. People purchase not the image itself or an exclusive right to view or display it, but instead simply its ownership rights. What makes their piece more original than your JPEG? Nothing. Except a piece of code on the internet alleging legal ownership and, importantly, bragging rights that you were able to spend such a sum on something so immaterial.

Critics allege that NFTs represent not the dematerialisation of art or the opening of digital art to new possibilities for expression and meaning. Instead, they argue that NFTs and their depressing popularity represents and unveils the global contemporary art world’s inner logic. Reducing art to a purely legal sense of ownership shows the commodification and financialisation of art in which pieces of art are valued for either their investment potential or the bragging rights of its owner. Bar some notable exceptions, the high-price tags of certain NFTs do not align with any recognition of artistic value, with cartoon-ish and often AI-created pieces being sold for millions of dollars, pointing instead to the primacy of the work as a speculative investment and statement by the buyer.

Don’t worry if NFTs sound confusing, as I’m sure most people who own NFTs also don’t fully understand them. But the important question is not the ‘how?’, but the ‘why?’. Do we enjoy art from the fact of us owning it? Or do we enjoy art because it acts as a vehicle for us to reflect and understand the world?

Local Egyptian Art You Can Actually Hang on a Wall

Access Art space, formerly known as the Townhouse Gallery, provides an antidote to the world of expensive NFTs. Access offers affordable prints and paintings by Egyptian-based artists that do not belong hidden away on the ‘blockchain’, but on the walls of homes and as presents for loved ones.

Access art gallery in downtown Cairo
Access Art Space’s collection of affordable paintings and prints. Via Thomas Pinn.

Some NFTs are funny for sure, but screenshot them, save the money, and spend it supporting local artists and to get something you can really enjoy. From more established artists to other artists trying to get their name and work out there, there is art for all budgets. Importantly too, your money goes not to some crypto bro in LA, but towards supporting young Egyptian artists and the cultural scene in Egypt.

Downtown Cairo’s Access Art Space has been at the forefront of Egyptian contemporary art since 1988. Through artist residencies, exhibitions and its shop selling affordable prints and paintings, Access is part of a dynamic and evolving Egyptian contemporary art scene. Unlike in the world of NFTs, Access believes that art is to be enjoyed, it is to be used to help us understand ourselves and our surroundings, and not simply an object of financial worth.

Access art gallery in downtown Cairo
Access Art Space’s collection of affordable paintings and prints. Via Thomas Pinn.

Foraging through the paintings at Access, some will speak to you and some won’t. But what is for sure is that the price tag won’t dictate its worth to you. While many of the artists at Townhouse and Access have of course subsequently become pretty famous and their work exploding in value, this isn’t the main reason their art is worth buying. Access is not about statement pieces and showing off your wealth, it’s about promoting and enjoying good art and pushing the boundaries of the contemporary art scene in Egypt.

While people may brag about their multi-million dollar NFT of an ape or meme, I’d never swap them for the paintings that me and my wife bonded over six years ago on our first date. NFTs claim to be democratising art, but it is places like Access selling affordable art by local artists that are opening up the art world by bursting the bubble of corporate galleries so more people can truly enjoy and value art.

You can find out more information about Access and their upcoming exhibitions on their Instagram and Facebook.

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