Walking into Kristel Bechara’s atelier, the first thing I see is a warm beam of bright sunlight streaming in through the large windows. The walls are painted white and there’s a faint smell of paint lingering in the room. Canvases with kaleidoscopic patterns are enclosed in bubble wrap and stand neatly lined up one behind the other on the floor.
With her paintbrush in hand the first female Arab NFT artist to launch a crypto art series is working on a 170x105cm canvas mounted on an easel that stands near a window. Staring intently at the canvas, the artist adds intricate patterns in azure, crimson and yellow and a colourful horse begins metamorphosing on the canvas.
Just behind the acrylic painting she is working on stands a pellucid slab of glass adorned with subtle colours of what one of Kristel’s first digitally created non-fungible tokens (NFT) artwork was – an artistic interpretation of the face of Satoshi Nakamoto, the alias of the person or group behind the creation of Bitcoin. The artwork called All Time High is symbolic of ATH, the moment at which cryptocurrency reaches the pinnacle of its value causing a cryptocurrency gold rush among traders before its decline. Here, Satoshi Nakamoto in black and white is encased within an orb littered with colourful patterns. The background is almost celestial with emblems of different cryptocurrencies adorning it.
"The first NFT artwork I ever created was that of Satoshi Nakamoto too," says the Lebanese expat. "I draw how I see them in my mind. So it’s a non-binary figure because they are anonymous. To portray their anonymity, I have drawn a partly transparent high-tech shield on their face which they’re attempting to lift but all my patterns cover the shield while partially revealing their identity."
The NFT piece as a part of her Beauty in DeFi series sold within 24 hours earlier this year at 1.10 ETH – Dh14,221.64. It was purchased by @uae (the collector’s username on Foundation) and he listed it on the secondary market for 35.00 ETH – Dh452,506.
What is NFT art
Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are smart contracts which cannot be interchanged. This means no copies of original artwork can be created or sold as the details of provenance – like who created it and who it has been sold to – is available on a digital ledger called Blockchain. This provides proof of ownership and authenticity for any artwork.
Blockchain is a technology coded on a network of computers, without any human interference. So, it’s secure and no one can edit or delete content of other creators.
"NFTs gave digital art the scarcity and the ownership aspect that we as digital artists did not have before, because digital art is infinitely applicable online. You can save it and produce multiple copies. But now with NFTs you have one owner, and it is identified through the Blockchain," says Kristel.
She also believes that this technology is beneficial to all digital artists as it is not only unique but also gives them the recognition they deserve. "If the piece is resold on the secondary market, the artist will always have proof of having created the artwork and will even receive royalty fees, which is amazing. The buyer it is resold too will also be included on the Blockchain.
"We never had this option before, so it opens a new market for us to sell directly to local and international collectors, completely skipping the middlemen. You don’t need an agent or galleries anymore.
"If more artists adopt this technology, more collectors and investors will be encouraged to adopt it as well. The more this technology is accepted, the easier it becomes to talk about," says the graphic designer turned full time artist.
Turning a hobby into a career
As a child, art always fascinated Kristel. She grew up surrounded by it as her father was a sculptor and artist.
"As a child, [I enjoyed] drawing, colouring, painting or looking at my dad working. I would even ask other people to draw for me as I loved to see the difference between styles and used to collect their drawings," remembers Kristel.
As her childhood artistic skills grew with her, she looked to develop them further by doing a major in graphic designing at university. "It was my dream to be an artist. But at the same time, I wanted a career because in our region, we grow up thinking art is a hobby, and you need a career. So, I found the closest thing I could to being an artist and it was graphic design."
That helped and she landed a job as an in-house designer in a corporate office where she spent five years.
Graphic designing opened the doors to the merging of technology and art and the use of software. Although she learned a plethora of styles and gained experience in software at her 9 to 5 job, she yearned to create a style that that was true to her. "I wanted to find a style that made me happy first. It was not for the client or the collector but for myself. So, I decided to quit and work on my art."
Her passion morphed into her current unique style, which combines her love of graphics and digital art with traditional art.
A peek into Kristel’s mind
"My creative process starts with brainstorming. If I’m working on a theme or a series I do immense research, to understand what I want to draw or paint and how I’m going to portray it. The process is a bit complex but it’s my own." She also does a lot of digital drawings and studies patterns of fabrics for inspiration. "Eventually I translate it on the canvas or screen," says Kristel.
The amalgam of simplicity and complexity of intricate patterns and muted backgrounds is mirrored in Kristel’s ‘Beauty in DeFi’ series. The purely NFT art series, released in March, focuses on the world of crypto and Kristel has even included logos of different cryptocurrencies to encourage people to understand the world she has embraced.
"DeFi is decentralised finance," Kristel elucidates the reason her series was termed ‘Beauty in DeFi’. It means the technology is decentralised so it is not government administered. Hence, it is like a defiance. The beauty of it is that you are selling directly and skipping the middleman with this peer-to-peer technology,’ she says.
Kristel’s mantra and the umbrella term under which the series falls is called ‘Beauty in Diversity’. "I try to see beauty in everything around me. We are all beautiful because we are different, and we should learn to love our differences because this is what makes us special."
As Kristel peels away the layers of her creative process, we uncover the actual layers to her artwork too. She reveals that a little lucky charm dressed in red and black hides in every piece she has created. Although the King of Hearts rules a small portion of her artworks, the popular character from Alice in Wonderland is also a part of Kristel’s signature within the patterns.
"Without thinking about it, I was including the King of Hearts whenever I started drawing. He just started coming to my mind and I began noticing I was drawing him frequently, so I started to add him on purpose," says the mother-of-two.
Just as the King of Hearts is represented in different mediums – movies, tarot cards, a playing deck- Kristel’s artwork too spans different mediums. From watercolors and acrylic paints to printed canvases and even Chinese ink Kristel tried her hand with diverse mediums. But none of the styles ‘spoke to me’; she found herself more creative when working on a digital medium. The result: creating digital artworks in her current, signature style.
With NFT art gaining popularity during the pandemic particularly after the sale of Beeple’s NFT artwork that went for $69 million at a Christie’s auction, does she think this is just another trend that might phase out soon?
"NFT art is not a pandemic fad. It is definitely here to stay. It is still in its infancy stage," she says. "So imagine how much room it has to grow. This is the first stage of this technology, as digital artists we were the first to adopt this technology. In the future NFTs will be applied to more things."
The artist whose home has been Dubai for the last 14 years says she appreciates everything the UAE government is doing to support digital artists. "They are making it as easy as possible for artists to be creative and are facilitating their careers in the country. They are opening exhibition museums where we can showcase our art. This is the support we need," says Kristel.
Alongside entrepreneurs launching their own platforms to sell NFT art she says some of the most prominent collectors from the UAE are starting to create their own virtual galleries of NFTs.
NFT and the technology is disrupting the art scene. "I’m very optimistic and this technology will open a lot of doors for artists and collectors," says the UAE Golden Visa holder.
NFT art is available on many platforms. "I am listing my work on an international marketplace, called Foundation. There are additional marketplaces buyers can explore like Open Sea. Collectors can have their wallets, connected to any of these marketplaces too, and can browse and buy NFTs," says Kristel.
With Kristel’s artworks selling for an average of 2.0 ETH (Dh25,712) and 18 of her NFT artworks being sold out, she considers her art her business. Although she has always had to prove her skill as a digital artist to people who believe the stylus is inferior to a paintbrush, she says her craft makes her happy.
"I’m proud to say I’m a digital artist. I used to have to defend my digital art before, and I used to always display my acrylic paintings adjacent to its digital form to prove that I can do both.
"Digital art is not lesser than traditional art, it’s just a different medium to present artwork work in the same style and with the same creative process," she says.
The ‘Beauty in Defi’ NFT only series is being continuously expanded and the artist plans to drop new artworks every week. The NFT pieces can be found on foundation.app/@KristelBechara.
She also offers a physical token of her digital artwork to the buyer and people can use cryptocurrency to purchase artworks.
While the sun still shines unrelentingly outside, Kristel paces back to her painting, examining where she can add more patterns to enhance the piece. Much like how the patterns on the ornate horse fit together like a perfect puzzle, through her art Kristel too is trying to fit crypto art into the future of art.