NFTs and blockchain bridge Ethiopia’s past and present in new art exhibition

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America’s first major institutional exhibition of Ethiopian art throughout the ages will conclude its year-long tour at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) with a grand finale featuring non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

In June, TMA announced that the blockchain-based Ethiopian art collective Yatreda will be their second digital artist in residence, following the Nigerian-based non-fungible token (NFT) star Osinachi’s residency in 2023.

This year, Yatreda will stage a special installation within TMA’s iteration of “Ethiopia at the Crossroads,” which TMA co-curated with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Yatreda’s contribution, titled “House Of Yatreda,” will feature loans of some of their most famous NFTs and debut a new series, too. Together, it will bridge the historical relics in “Ethiopia at the Crossroads” with cutting-edge art from Ethiopia today.

Yatreda has already started embedding with TMA, embarking on the duties of this year’s expanded residency program by getting to know Toledo, discussing details for “House of Yatreda” with TMA’s curators, and mentoring local painter Jordan Buschur. This fall, the residency culminates with a Christie’s sale featuring works by Yatreda — and Buschur’s first mint.

The announcement that Yatreda will be this year’s digital artist in residence arrived just a week after TMA announced its new TMA Labs, a department devoted to scouting new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and Web3, to support data and operating efficiencies.

“Ink and leather” become “blockchain and video”

As a collective, Yatreda alchemizes Ethiopia’s oft-overlooked history and national pride into black and white, animated photographs of historical fictions minted entirely on Ethereum. 

Ethiopia is one of only two African nations never colonized. Each year, Adwa Victory Day commemorates their conquest over would-be colonizers.

But, Yatreda’s founder and leader, Kiya Tadele, noticed that while Ethiopians have a lot of pride, few efforts have been made to record the country’s history through the means other nations have been afforded.

Yatreda’s name is an Amharic portmanteau of “fence” and “debt,” a nickname that Tadele got as a girl when a psychic predicted she’d grow up gorgeous. Tadele modeled in Addis Ababa and also did photo editing.

Working alongside her sisters Roman and Suzy, as well as her fiance and friends, Tadele guides Yatreda in staging and documenting scenes that bridge Ethiopia’s past with its present and future. They mint the resulting videos on Foundation or sell them with Christie’s.

Screenshot of Medusa, Andromeda of Aethiopia. Source: Yatreda

Yatreda offered one of the top lots in Christie’s NFT sale during Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2023.

Roman, a historian, conducts research to ensure the historical accuracy of Yatreda’s photographs. Suzy designs the costumes that Yatreda’s cast members wear for each shoot.

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The final results depict present-day Ethiopians in royal garb and timeless poses in the spirit of tizita — the Amharic term for an aesthetic evoking nostalgia. Each artwork’s slow-motion animation gives it a sense of breathing. In this fullest form, Yatreda’s work must exist digitally rather than as prints.

“Our modern canvas is video and blockchain instead of ink and leather,” Tadele told Cointelegraph over email, describing how their work carries Ethiopian art into the future.

The race to pair Web3 and traditional art

For their part, TMA isn’t the first museum exploring the emerging intersection of Web3 and art.

Tadele told Cointelegraph she once connected with famed Web3 art developer Lady Cactoid and learned all about her work curating NFTs for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

“Some time ago, MoMA [New York’s Museum of Modern Art] invited us in to learn more directly from us artists before they entered Web3,” she said. “I can’t compare all of these museums. I am just happy all of these institutions are expanding, bridging and making us strong together.”

However, TMA was the first museum to stage a metaverse exhibition in Decentraland during 2021. It also believes it’s the first institution to host a digital art residency for NFT artists.

Sophie Ong, TMA’s assistant director of strategic initiatives, told Cointelegraph that TMA chose Yatreda for this year’s program to align with “Ethiopia at the Crossroads.”

The show, which has been praised by Hyperallergic, The Wall Street Journal and others, spans 2,000 years of Ethiopian history across 200 artworks — including artifacts from the Kingdom of Aksum (first millennium A.D.) through pieces by contemporary Ethiopian-American art star Julie Mehretu.

The exhibition debuted at the Walters Art Museum in December 2023 and is up at the Peabody Essex Museum through this weekend. Its final engagement runs at TMA from Aug. 17 through Nov. 10. TMA’s edition alone will feature “House of Yatreda,” presenting loans of the collective’s greatest hits, like “Queen of Sheba” (2021), depicting Tadele as the regal figure that Ethiopians call Makeda, and the premier of Yatreda’s Abyssinian Queen series of four portraits.

Screenshot of Queen of Sheba. Source: Yatreda

“When we started building [Abyssinian Queen], there were no historical photos, no paintings, nothing you can find in one place to get the reference,” Tadele recounted of making the series. “It makes me even more interested to approach this artwork as capturing collective memory.”

The residency’s burgeoning stages

By this point, Yatreda has already spent weeks in Toledo meeting with the community, exploring the museum’s resources, and envisioning “House of Yatreda” — which will even host authentic coffee ceremonies, an especially sacred event in the country that gave rise to coffee culture.

At the same time, TMA is in a yearlong collaboration with contractors to develop a platform that will allow uninitiated guests to collect the free Proof of Attendance Protocol artworks and other NFTs that both Yatreda and Buschur will drop throughout the fall.

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Blockchain has certainly paved the way for artists outside the machine to sell ephemeral works, but Tadele considers the technology’s capacity to create belonging perhaps its greatest benefit.

“A ‘place’ should be more than a social media platform with posts and likes, it should be more like a home,” she said. “A true home for art should have continuity, future, preserving and owning.”

“I would even add that it brings out the best in me because every time we launch an artwork, the support from others online boosts my confidence and motivates me to dedicate my life to this.”

Now, whether Toledo will become America’s next Web3 hotspot remains to be seen.