It’s the morning of June 21, 2022, Toni Payne, a still life photographer arrives at the Times Square in New York wearing a flowing, long, pink and white one-piece gown and black sneakers to match with a black cross-body bag. With a smile and eyes glued to the screen, she holds up a mobile phone to capture the moment her artwork that was minted into a non-fungible token (NFT) debuts.
“It was magical. It was a proud moment for me,” she says. “I laughed and screamed oh my god.”
Completed in June 2022, the piece is a photograph of a talking drum, peculiar to some ethnic groups in West Africa including the Yoruba people in Nigeria, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone of human speech. The drum is flanked by red roses held by a ceramic vase which appears to be engraved with a human face and cowrie shells that symbolise prosperity and fertility and was used as a means of payment in many parts of Africa before the 20th century. The items are arranged on a handwoven tablecloth called ‘aso oke’ with a greenish-black backdrop.
You can communicate with a talking drum. The ‘aso oke’ is what we wear. The rose, a lot of people don’t know we grow this thing in Africa, she says. “So my primary goal for that piece was to get people to actually think deeper and look into our culture and its history and the beauty of it.”
The piece titled ‘still life with Yoruba talking drum’ was selected and featured at Times Square alongside about 216 NFTs by different artists across the globe by the NFT.NYC, the largest NFT conference in the world. NFTs are digital collectibles that hold unique data, live on the blockchain and cannot be copied or reproduced.
The piece was me traveling back in time to put together what still life art would have looked like in the 17th century, what would have represented the Yoruba people of those times, she tells Arweave News, adding that beyond the beauty of the piece, “I wanted something that shows clearly and without a doubt who I am.”
Payne acknowledges that the Golden Age of art in Europe influenced some of her works; she sometimes wonders what influenced European still life artists of that time. For her, every piece is personal and an attempt for her to challenge prejudiced notions, including black people not being capable of creating still life art and that Europe has a monopoly on it. The notions originate from poor documentation of the development of still life art in many parts of Africa, she says.
At the age of five, Payne wanted to be a lawyer. In college, she studied video digital art after a pre-law in psychology and journalism. She enjoyed the visual arts, telling stories, writing and researching which she would not be able to do as a lawyer.
I just wanted to do something that I found exciting, she says.
Payne has keen eyes for identifying potentials and opportunities. When artists in Nigeria’s music industry had no presence online even though the internet was becoming popular elsewhere, Payne, a Nigerian studying in America, created a website that gave artists a chance to be popular globally. Afro-pop singer Innocent Idibia’s first online interview was done during one of her trips to Nigeria, she tells Arweave News. One of the biggest artists in Africa, Olamide Adedeji spoke glowingly about Payne’s role in his early career by “pushing beyond limits” and even teaching him how to use Twitter.
I saw undeniable fire, Payne wrote about Adedeji “Proud of how much he has been able to achieve and how many music careers he has lifted up.”
But her nine-year-old professional photography career is her focus these days. Like she did with the internet and the Nigerian music industry, she now unites NFT, a blockchain technology with traditional ways of producing and distributing photography to tell stories of the heritage and identity of the African people. Her wish is for her work to be featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She describes NFTs impact as a game changer whose format makes it easier to place value and attach provenance to her work while also ensuring accessibility for buyers.
It gave me and other photographers the opportunity to sit back and really rethink how we do things, she says.
Despite NFT’s positive impact, she says she would continue to sell physical artworks because she loves to see it on people’s walls.
It’s a year since Payne was introduced to NFTs. Her artworks are on Ethereum, Solano and Tezos blockchains. Unlike the opinion by some people that Web 2 will be upended by Web 3 and the novel Web 5, Payne believes NFTs and traditional format of artworks will co-exist, at least for now. But for NFTs to overtake the traditional format, certain things have to be done.
We have to set the right foundations with NFTs and with general perception about it because there are a lot of wrong perceptions out there, she says, citing the opinion by some people that cartoon JPEGs, including the Bored Ape, Crypto Punk and Crypto Kitties embody the generality of NFTs as one of the erroneous perceptions.
“As artists in NFT, it’s important for us to make people understand that NFT is not an art, it is a technology we put our art on. When people that are coming from the traditional world see NFTs this way, we’ll begin to see a shift,” Payne says, adding that the industry needs to do more to detect scams.
Many NFT items have high price tags. This sometimes draws both admiration and condemnation from people. Reports of NFTs selling for several millions of dollars and prospect of the NFT market hitting $800 billion in two years could attract new players, some of them seeking larger audiences and better financial gratification for their works. But the volatile nature of the cryptocurrency market raises questions about whether NFT items are truly more profitable than those on traditional mediums.
I’ll say it’s the same because the way I do my pricing now, when there’s a bear market, traditional is more profitable. But when there is a bull market, NFTs are more profitable, Payne says. “Personally, I try to be fair in my pricing.”
Payne does not consider the recognition her artworks are getting as an end, instead, she sees it as a journey. Her goal is to see her artworks birth important and in-depth conversations about her style and the substance of every piece. NFT’s attributes may be what solidifies this idea.
It still has a lot more places to be seen and a lot more people to inspire. I don’t think it has gotten to that place where people are analysing the pieces, she said about her artworks. “It is going to get there. It is going to get to that point where people sit down and talk about what message Toni was trying to convey with these pieces.