Not too many artists have a CV that includes 15 years working in executive level positions at global financial services businesses. But Amrita Sethi is not your typical artist – and her innovative and entrepreneurial approach to her work, including her embrace of the emerging NFT phenomenon, owes much to her experience in commerce.
Born and raised in Kenya, Sethi is a British national with a global outlook, having worked around the world in senior positions for the likes of HSBC, Barclays and Zurich Insurance. “I was artistically inclined from a young age, but I also fell madly in love with economics,” says Sethi of her first career. “Then, three years ago, I decided I want to do something more entrepreneurial, so I went back to my passion for art.”
Sethi’s work is unique. While she produces more traditional pieces that rely on conventional painting methods, she is best known for her digital art; in particular, she pioneered “Voice Note Art”, an idea for which she holds the intellectual property rights. The idea is to take a word – the name of the subject of the work, for example – and then to use the sound waves that the name produces when spoken out loud to produce a picture. “People haven’t seen sound before and when you bring their story to life, they find it deeply personal,” she explains.
This multimedia art form has captured people’s imagination, particularly in Dubai where Sethi now lives. Within months of giving up her financial services career she won the Outstanding Artist Award at World Art Dubai April 2019 and was asked to produce live activations and installations for a string of international shows. Since then, she has created Voice Note Art portraits for a range of clients, including celebrities and world leaders such as Dubai’s ruler, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.
More recently, Sethi has become something of a trailblazer for NFTs. The acronym stands for non-fungible tokens, but leaving this mouthful aside, the important point is that NFTs are a new way to sell digital art and music.
NFTs are one-of-a-kind digital assets that can be bought and sold; effectively, they are certificates of ownership for a virtual asset such as a digital artwork. These certificates are recorded on a blockchain – in most cases, the Ethereum blockchain – with the ledger providing an immutable record of ownership. The tokens can also be set up to include provisions for the artist to receive a share each time that the NFT is sold to a new owner.
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An NFT doesn’t necessarily give you copyright ownership of the artwork, any more than owning an original painting prevents the sale of prints of it. But the NFT does show you own the original work.
In the conservative and traditional art world, NFTs have raised eyebrows, but the idea is catching on fast – not least given some jaw-dropping transactions. Most famously, the auction house Christie’s completed the sale of an NFT by the digital artist Beeple for $69m earlier this year.
Sethi was an early adopter of the idea. “When I first started making my Voice Note Art, you couldn’t make money from digital works and I had to produce prints that I could sell,” she explains. “So when I began to find out about NFTs, the idea was really exciting.”
Sethi’s financial background helped her get her head around a concept that takes some grasping, but she is convinced NFTs have a big future. “They really enable an artist to jump out of the page – to create and sell a more dynamic piece of work,” she argues. “It also democratises art; in the past, galleries have acted as gatekeepers and there is some value to that, but if you don’t have the keys, you get left out – this gives artists a voice.”
Of course, while anyone can create an NFT, there is no guarantee someone will want to buy it. In practice, artists need to work just as hard to create demand for their work – to build a compelling story around their pieces. But using digital platforms such as Terra Virtua, through which Sethi sells her NFTs, it is possible to reach a broad target market.
As for the buyer’s perspective, Sethi believes NFTs can bring new generations of art lovers into the industry, including younger buyers who have grown up buying digital assets in environments such as gaming. “You’re getting an unforgeable provenance for the work,” she points out. “You can buy the art to display, with really exciting possibilities with augmented and virtual reality, and as with traditional art collection, there is investment potential too.”
Sethi’s own work is growing in value. She has just sold her latest NFT for $10,000. “Unlike most digital art, which can be endlessly reproduced, each NFT is coded to have a unique digital signature and characteristic,” she points out. “This gives NFTs the attributes of originality and scarcity that make them so attractive and valuable – just like a physical artwork.”