On Joining the NFT Art Mania: Creative Liberation or Lotacracy
On Joining the NFT Art Mania: Creative Liberation or Lotacracy

Commissioned and published in Garland Magazine, March 2022 Issue, Australia and subsequently presented at the Karachi Biennial’s Public Forum later that year, The Karachi Collective publishes Abdullah M. I. Syed’s On joining the NFT art mania: Creative liberation or lotacracy research essay with an epilogue. As the writer, Syed feels that ideas shared earlier require further reflections, predictive analysis and creative propositions to address the current sentiments on NFT, the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and the economy of an art object.

“Cleanliness is half of faith” was the first Islamic lesson taught to me during my formative years in Pakistan. This involves using water to perform wāzu (ablution) for prayers, bathing, and personal hygiene. Thus, fulfilling such an obligation lies in perfecting the discipline and skill of handling and usage of a lota. A quintessential South Asian invention, a lota is a household object that some consider as mythical, fulfilling our most desired wish at the most vulnerable time: water for purification. It is one of the few objects in Pakistan that can transcend the barriers between class, age, gender and socio-political, religious and economic division. Almost all citizens have the knowledge, access and ownership of a lota.

For some, there is tremendous pride in having a family lota that goes back generations. My mother gave me her beloved eighty-year-old ornate metal (bronze/copper) lota (originally included in her dowry and strictly used for hand washing and religious ablution for prayers), along with its stellar provenance and auspicious stories of how it accompanied its many owners to pilgrimages and migrations. Ironically, despite the better judgment and advice from elders, I had not packed a lota in my luggage when relocating to the western world. It was only after using an improvised lota in the form of plastic bottles and plant watering jugs — a practice lacking civility — that finding the perfect lota (metal or plastic) in shops or on the digital platforms (Amazon) became the first and the last priority.

Writing about a cultural heritage object such as a lota as a placeholder of lived memory becomes complicated when transformed into an NFT (Non-Fungible Token), a unique digital representation of an art form. An NFT is akin to a certificate of authenticity or a deed and it is recorded on a blockchain, a distributed digital ledger that stores data of any kind. Although I am part of Gen X and have witnessed the rise of the digital revolution, I still value living with and creating heritage objects that are important to me as they shed light on my personal and cultural origins.

As an object maker myself, I see both tangible and intangible beauty in objects and consider their visual and sensory value, encompassing the wealth of knowledge and skills transmitted from one generation to the next. The resulting socio-economic value of this knowledge transfer encourages cross-cultural, mutual respect and helps to build new ethical ways of transparent communication while maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. According to UNESCO, intangible cultural heritage— such as oral traditions and rituals—  not only represent inherited traditions from the past but also inform contemporary culture and practices in which diverse cultural groups take part. In today’s discussion of metaverse, what happens when a physical object becomes a digital NFT token, and how does such a transformation affect its cultural memory and access among diverse social and cultural groups?

My first challenge stemmed from finding a conceptual link between my chosen artifact (a lota) and an NFT, both as placeholders of memory, history, and knowledge. In this context, the “placeholder” word serves as a connecting point as it attributes a meeting place of tangible and intangible. In the digital realm, a placeholder is a variable that gets replaced by real data at a later date. In theory, this is what an NFT represents. While its token connects with a photograph or moving image, an NFT is not the object itself.

Having previously worked with forms of physical currencies— ranging from species, shells, gems, to coins and banknotes— my NFT’s creation would extend my artistic investigation. It could bring forth a new symbolic meaning of an object’s monetary as well as conceptual value. There was also a personal appeal for me to select a lota, as articulated in the beginning. Relaying this object through an NFT format not only invites the viewer to imagine such tactile and historical existence in pixels but also adds to the ongoing fascination of exploring an existing artifact in the Duchampian tradition of ready-mades.

Meanwhile, to elaborate on the lota’s significance, the object (also known as aftabeh or bodna in South Asia) is a globular vessel (often spouted) and serves as a staple object in most (if not all) South Asian dwellings. Used for bathing and personal cleansing with water, a lota and its design evolution has also gained significant importance both in the spiritual and religious customs, as well as in art, literature, and politics, in the sub-continent. Growing up in Pakistan, I frequently came across people using bependi ka lota (a lota without a base), to describe political turncoats, which colloquially refers to a person who may switch their loyalties.

Lota Detail from Drawing Memories: A Life in a Day, 2021, Photograph: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins, Image: courtesy the artist and Gallery Sally Dan Cuthbert, Sydney

Simply put, a spherical lota without a base tends to roll over in unpredictable directions when kept on uneven ground. Hence Pakistani pundits coined the neologism lotacracy to describe politicians who would switch parties, rather than uphold their principles. Their loyalties would always be in doubt. This cultural evolution of lota as a political device became so negative that it was removed from the election ballot paper.

The core of my NFT project focused on the changing meaning of a lota imbued with notions of purity, devotion, and abundance as a holder and transfer of the element of life, to evolve, in the last century, into a political symbol of ridicule, dishonestly, and treachery.

To navigate the NFT world, I sought out an NFT creator to guide me through the process. Faisal Anwar, a Toronto-based artist and the curator of 2022 Karachi Biennial, focuses on digital technology in his art and curatorial practices. Through our various discussions, it became clear that creating an NFT that someone wants to collect takes an organized plan of action and much patience. According to Anwar, an NFT is a “decentralized power” that has shifted the status quo for a creator, giving them autonomy and unfathomable freedom in the new crypto art economy.

Drawing Memories: A Life in a Day (with Lota), 2021, mixed media drawing installation, 24-carat gold leaf, found family objects and textile, artist’s personal memorabilia and heirlooms. Photograph: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins, Image: courtesy the artist and Gallery Sally Dan Cuthbert, Sydney

Such creation and distribution are now even happening on the macro-level where creators, collectors and auction houses, either independently or collectively, sell an NFT of a masterpiece in parts and even in pixels. Anwar suggested using the OpenSea website, an open NFT platform, which one could easily access, navigate and use. Once there, I would create an NFT on the Polygon (MATIC) blockchain with no gas fees (No crypto payment is required at the minting stage to offset the computing energy used by the network, hence reducing carbon footprint). Anwar also suggested the Coinbase digital crypto wallet app which, popular in Australia, could help me receive crypto coins at the point of sale.

The quickest and simplest method to create an NFT would be to upload an image of an existing artwork onto a recognized platform. Other methods involve more elaborate means, ranging from creating an entire Metaverse NFTs such as a Dolce and Gabbana’s fashion collection fetching millions of dollars in sales. Once I uploaded the lota artwork with proper informative text, set the resale protocols and froze the metadata so no one could change the NFT, it was launched. Check it out here.

Lota Navy Blue NFT, 2022, Creator: Abdullah M. I. Syed; Lota Navy Blue NFT Collector: Saks Afridi, Published by OpenSea.

After going through my first NFT creation experience, I think that the initial promise that an NFT would protect the artist and their creation is now under threat due to tech-world opportunism. Time and time again, we can learn from global art history that every time new technologies, such as printmaking and photography, can enable artists to exercise control over the edition run, pricing and sale of their work, the question of authenticity dominates the discussion. We still live in a world where physical objects hold value and are appreciated for their visual, tactile form.

A central legal question, especially for anyone interested in issues raised through the dissemination of NFTs, could be posed in simple terms: As a creator and buyer of NFT, what can one actually own?

The French government provided us with a clear answer to this question, stipulating that an art object can only be publicly auctioned if it is in the form of tangible, movable property. Hence an NFT sale as an art object would be deemed illegitimate.

This gave rise to the creation of an NFT display frames market, such as Tokenframe’s real wooden frames with anti-glare screens, leading us back to the authenticity of an NFT in the first place. Similar to the lota history, since the launch of NFTs as coloured coins in 2012-2013, its debate has been polarising. For some, NFTs are the high tech future of creativity and liberation and for others, they are an inflated “speculative bubble”, a Ponzi scheme and ecological disaster.

It can be a placeholder of our evolutionary desires, knowledge transfer, or simply a “lota” without a base. Only history can judge the outcome of this “artistic” shift.


As many predicted, the value generators of the NFT market, cryptocurrency and market exchanges have crashed. The cryptocurrency boom, led by the value of Bitcoin, tumbled to just over US$15,000 from its peak of US$68,729 in 2022 to now hovering between the US$28,000 and US$40,000 level. Once leading to $3 trillion market capitalisation in 2022, in less than two years, the NFT market is considered worthless, down 99.8% to US$5.04 billion or in crypto language 95% of NFTs have touched a marker capitalisation of 0 ETH (ETH is Ethereum crypto). The uncertainty surrounding the future direction of the current NFTs and the unregulated crypto market is further exacerbated by the development and imminent launch of new crypto currency and crypto securities legislation by global economic powers the United States of American and China. Furthermore, the mainstream use of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)— especially learning technology such as Chat GPT and Dall-E-2 that succeed in the guesswork of synthesizing a ‘new artwork’— raises more questions about its influence in many aspects of our society, including finance, education, medicine, law, bureaucracy, and even art, as reported by Coindesk consensus and Arsty survey.

A.I. is neither artificial nor intelligent, and does not exist in a vacuum. It can compute and solve problems with or without moral, ethical or personal agency which are based on human’s data input that includes asking a correct question and setting up parameters. A.I. alongside robotics, have potential to create perfect illusions of the world we live in, creating modern day mythologies and affecting our decision making power and creativity, except a few who are in power and control of A.I. Ironically, many Indigenous cultures warned us about such false mythologies and the world as a temporary space—an illusion. To understand these illusions and how they are transforming our lives and belief systems, I argue that the cultural and artistic representations of A.I., Crypto, and NFTs all have roots in many mystical traditions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (First Nations) in Australia to Muslim Sufis and Hindu Vedas. Such an analysis will not only provide humanistic insight into the adaptive and illusionary nature of emerging technologies but also inform how they are transforming our emotions, mind and the body.

In the Hindu Vedic system, the Kalyug term refers to the age of initial golden ascension followed by decline and degeneration. Material possessions, physical pleasures and Maya (money) culture drive this illusory world. In Vedic astrology, the show runners of this illusory material world are two Asura (demon) deities, Rahu and Ketu. Known as chaya (shadow) planets whose energies govern the desire of this human world in various illusionary forms, a Vedic mythological tale of the distribution of the amrita (nectar of immortality) among Devas (Gods) is the origin story of Rahu and Ketu. A demon named Swarbhānu mingled with the Devas in disguise and tasted a drop of the Amrita. However, as the Sun and the Moon Devas caught the demon as an intruder, the former alerted Vishnu, who severed the demon’s neck, forming Rahu (serpent’s head) and Ketu (serpent’s body/tail).

Rahu represents unseen wealth, addiction, illusions, thoughts and research. In this Kalyug, Rahu also represents technology such as the computer hardware and mobile phones. It amplifies the unrealistic worldly desire and only serves to deceive what it creates indiscriminately but never reaches satisfaction, as it has no stomach similar to the computer, a head with no body and requires input to process and to provide output. Rahu also creates illusionary non-existence money systems, such as banking system, that first flourish for a certain amount of time but then slowly decompose to make room for a new type of monetary model such as digital currency and Crypto, revealing the previous illusion of wealth model as obsolete and rotten. Ketu on the other hand, exacerbates the desire to dissociate and reject worldly matters toward spiritual and emotional liberation. Collectively, Rahu and Ketu are a hidden singularity of a ‘black hole’ that has an immense dark energy of creation and destruction. They showcase a troubling polarity— either through the excess wealth and power or the complete loss of the former (albeit inconsistently). Rahu, a pure intelligence concept with no physical existence, strongly manifests in air and vacuum of space and hyperspace. This explosive and instable condition also reflects the current digital commodity and assists market. Rahu creates A.I., Robots, Crypto, and NFTs mythologies of illusions that promise immortality, immediate gratification and eternal success in the modern day on a precarious edge.

Such impulsive data driven A.I. led systems imbued with Rahu’s energy is polar opposite of the human artistic endeavour that operates on balancing act of logic, intuition and emotions and pose challenging questions to ethically seek unseen creative possibilities. Whereas A.I. is primarily logic-based on rational quantitative mathematics, which can simplify complex and nuanced experiences of humans and their creative outcomes (e.g. art, writing and music) but can never perfectly reinterpret or recreate emotions. Hence, this poses a moral challenge and input conundrum for its creator. If and when the NFT market will mature like the art market, in what form does an NFT object create the personal connection with its collector as a physical art object often does?

Incidentally— while returning to the Rahu and Ketu mythological binary— pure water from the copper lota serves as a remedy and prayer to calm and appease them. In a sense, when a physical lota that is an extension of the body is transformed into a digital lota NFT, it becomes an antidote filled with power of emotion that can wash away illusions created by Rahu’s technology. Furthermore, I argue that the mystical body acts as a lota/vessel containing water to renew life while embodying emotions and thoughts. By curtailing the latter, the water can purify our mind and break free from the illusion.

Presenting my ancestral lota as an NFT—and how it links with the body, mind, heart and emotions, and the very act of using a lota filled with water for various acts of ritual purification such as ablution— is deeply rooted in the transference of its imprinted tactile reminisce, design, materiality, patina and ownership that are physical manifestation of a past memory. The new owner strengthens the previous use by adding new association and memories to the object. In the case of NFTs, it is neither art in its conventional sense nor an archetypical artefact as object of an NFT is non-functional and devoid of imprintable tactile memories. However, the emerging technologies and innovations in the NFT market, since its crash in 2022, have pushed it to instil unseen emotional connections that never existed before, where not letting go an NFT despite the loss is a sign of emotional loss of betrayal mixed with hope. I argue that such an expansion, when combined with ideas of transference of personal connections and memory (that is preservation and culture driven) can potentially create a powerful strategy for promoting an NFT, especially regarding its short or long term holding, branding and return on investment.

When collectors feel a personal connection to an artist or the subject matter, they also support the artist and invest in their own emotional and creative growth. For instance, a New York-based artist friend who also creates and collects NFTs, bought my very first lota NFT upon launch. His motivation was not only to support my research but also the story of my ancestral lota triggered his personal emotional connection with his culture and family, through my ancestral lota he connected with lived experiences as a South Asian Muslim. I can only predict that such emotional connections will motivate any subsequent collection of my lota NFT.

A full circle moment: a lota, as a personal heirloom with significant cultural meaning that transforms into an NFT in a simplified form, remains something familiar to collectors, specifically among those from a culture that affirms the lota. As history suggests, the artist’s resilience and passion endure monumental challenges and often thrive in difficult times— the current uncertainty around NFTs in the art sector is no different. Yet the fact is that until NFT artists crack the code on how to translate the value of human emotions, taste and urge to hold, touch and feel an object, that at least for now A.I. cannot replicate on a physical level, an NFT is unable to generate an emotional response that a physical object such a lota can.

Title image: Azra’s Dowry Lota with Detail, Photograph: Abdullah M.I. Syed, Image: courtesy of the artist and Syed Family

Dr. Abdullah M.I. Syed’s interdisciplinary art practice champions the power of storytelling from a cross-cultural perspective while working at the intersection of drawing, sculpture, video, textile, photography, performance, installation, and public art. Syed’s Pakistani Muslim heritage and his wide-ranging research interests—including arts and crafts, abstraction and embodiment, language and visual culture, nature and mysticism, and the influences of his everyday experiences lived inside and outside a diasporic space—all coalesce to create archival art forms the artist terms as manzoom muzahamat (poetic resistance). Syed studied and taught art and design in the United States, Pakistan, and Australia and earned a Ph.D. in Art, Media, and Design (2015) from the University of New South Wales and a Master of Education (2001) and a B.A. in Design (1999) from the University of Central Oklahoma. A member of eleven, a collective of contemporary Muslim Australian artists, curators, and writers, he has written exhibition catalogue essays and contributed reviews and articles to Southerly, TAASA Review, Imprint Australia, and Garland Magazine. Presently, Syed is showcasing his works in “Elemental” at Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) and, since 2022, Syed has completed four public art commissions locally and abroad: Ripple Effect for 5 Parramatta Square Civic Center (PHive), Sydney; Tesserae Wall for the façade of Warwick Farm Commuter Car Park, Sydney; Chahār Bāgh: Garden of Knowledge, a permanent mural at UNSW Library Alumni Mural programme, Sydney; and Woven Cascade, a commissioned textual wall artwork for the new Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Syed’s artwork can be found in museums, institutes, and private collections nationally and internationally, including a body of work in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Abdullah M. I. Syed is represented by Gallery Sally Dan Cuthbert, Sydney.

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