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Future Shapers Arts Serwah Attafuah
Photograph: Jamie Wdziekonski

Time Out's Arts Future Shaper: Serwah Attafuah

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

The capabilities of digital design tools have made giant leaps forward in recent years, but prototyping the future of art is about more than just embracing new technologies. As creativity has expanded into the seemingly limitless realm of the digital space, it has become increasingly difficult to value and protect. Serwah Attafua is part of a vanguard of creators on the bleeding edge of the cryptoart revolution. Not only does her mastery of the medium of 3D digital modelling deserve to be recognised, but in raising the bar for what digital art can aesthetically accomplish, she is also redefining the way art collectors and gallerygoers connect, value, and possess art, most notably through the new digital licensing model of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The worlds she conjures in her work are of breathtaking scale, tapping into pop culture, fantasy lore, and diverse identities. Her playful, provocative, inspiring and bold vision is shaping the future of art in Sydney and beyond.

Follow Serwah here: @wrath_____

What’s most important to you as an artist?

The most important thing to me is for my voice and my vision to be heard and to be my own. I spent a lot of time in music where I wasn't able to have much creative input, so my visual art is very sacred and feels like the purest form of my vision at the moment. Art is so personal to me and a lot of it hasn't been and won't be shared. I've worked for some of my dream clients on some of my dream projects but if my creative thoughts aren't able to thrive it just doesn't feel right. I just want to be able to express myself fully fueled by my thoughts alone.

While you’re experienced working in traditional materials such as oils, you’re best known for the digital artworks you’ve been creating since 2013. When did you discover that working in a digital medium was a good conduit for your creative voice?

I have been working digitally for most of my life. My mum is a graphic designer so I was always encouraged to play with digital tools like Photoshop and Corel Draw from a very early age. Sometime in my teens, I wasn't able to continue oil painting as I no longer had a studio space to work from. I had to find an alternative. What initially drew me to 3D art was the fact that it's so self-reliant and the possibilities seemed so endless. All I need is a computer and somewhere to sit and from there I can create whole new universes. Although I started my 3D journey in 2013, I have really pushed myself in the last 4 years to develop and expand my 3D  and digital art practice.

You describe the aesthetic of your art as “Afrofuturism” and many of your works contain reimagined versions of yourself. How do you develop the concepts and storytelling in the fantastical, cyberpunk worlds you create and why is placing yourself in these worlds important to your vision?

Both in the traditional art world and the digital art space, I've always found there's a lack of representation regarding Black stories and characters. Even in the cyberpunk and sci-fi media I grew up on, there was never really anyone like me to relate to other than Morpheus and Niobe in The Matrix. A lot of my art deals with escapism, trying to put reflections of myself in spaces that I'd like to exist in, as a way of temporarily reaching a sanctuary. Escapism isn't always a bad thing, as a Black woman it can get pretty rough out here, so having a fantasy world or avatar to dissolve into is really important to me for my mental health. It's always been imperative to me to showcase and uplift black people especially women in my work. To me, Afrofuturism means upholding and celebrating thousands of years of past culture across Black history around the globe and translating that into a positive, future-focused mindset. 

Your work as an artist is not only pioneering because of its breathtaking content – you’re also a trailblazer in the new era of cryptoart. Why is the emergence of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) so important to digital artists such as yourself?

It's incredibly important for digital art to be consumed in its native and organic form. It differs so much from physical work such as a painting because to some, it doesn't seem as tangible or real. You can hand someone a sculpture but in the past it's been quite hard for people to wrap their heads around the concept of owning a digital piece because there was no real way of tracking who owned what. NFTs have helped bring newfound respect, credibility and platform to help share and enjoy digital art.

Your work Creation of My Metaverse (Between this World and the Next) was recently auctioned via the highly esteemed auction house Sotheby’s. Do you see this as a signal that art dealers and collectors are finally treating digital art with the same respect as analogue art?

Definitely. Having such a renowned art institution such as Sotheby's not only acknowledge my work but digital art as a whole has been so fulfilling. The 'Natively Digital' auction totaled $17.1 million US, which is a fantastic indicator that collectors from all angles are very open to the concept of owning digital art. Sotheby's were incredibly on board, involved in the community and willing to learn about the medium which I really respect and appreciate. The 300-year-old auction house not only gave us an online auction but they beautifully displayed all the pieces in their London, New York and Hong Kong galleries, along with a digital replica of their London space in Decentraland. I'm so thankful for the platform they gave us to showcase and educate others about digital art.

You have created artworks for several commercial and corporate collaborations, such as Nike and Warner Music. How important is it for contemporary artists to see these kinds of collabs as viable platforms for sharing their work?

Working on commercial and corporate projects are a great way of translating your style or vision into a new context. Personally having been a musician myself it was always important and exciting for me to work with fellow musicians to visualize their sounds. Listening to or writing music when I was younger I'd always think about how I would make the cover art or animate a video for a track I was listening to. It's awesome to be able to do that now on a professional scale for some of my favorite artists and brands. Artwork as a medium for advertising, fashion, media, film etc is just as important and valid as artwork for a gallery. It's a great launchpad to new audiences outside of your own bubble.

What does the future of Sydney’s visual art scene look like to you? 

I'd love to see more of a focus on emerging technology and how we can merge that with art practices. Such as generative art, AI, robotics, motion capture and VR experiences. The amount of community and grassroots-based organizations and galleries popping up such as Pari in Parramatta is really great to see. Going forward it would be amazing to see even more spaces and opportunities open up in Western Sydney and areas outside the central city district. There's so much raw talent out here that needs to be nurtured and seen at a wider scale.

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