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Chat with Misan Harriman, the curator of the Tezos Foundation Digital Art Gallery

We had the pleasure of talking to the curator of the Tezos Foundation Digital Art Gallery Misan Harriman about his journey in the art Web3 space.

Where did your creative journey begin?

I was bought a camera by my wife for my 40th birthday. When George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020, I felt that I needed to do something. So I went out onto the streets of London and shot the anti-racism protests that happened in London, and something about those images struck a chord with the world.

Very quickly I had the son of Martin Luther King posting my images, and I was then commissioned by Vogue to shoot the cover of the September Issue, the most important cover of the year. And in doing so, I became the first Black man ever to shoot a Vogue cover, let alone the September Issue.

Last year, when the National Portrait Gallery in London acquired two of my images for their permanent collection, I realized that I’m in very, very thin air space as a photographer, and I’ve been very lucky to have built a body of work from my civil rights work, to my celebrity portraiture, to my personal projects.


How did you get into the world of blockchain and Web3?

I’ve just always been as comfortable, if not more comfortable, in digital worlds, so when that technology came about, I jumped right in. I was a relatively early collector on multiple blockchains, including Tezos, Cardano, and Ethereum.


How did you become connected with the Tezos ecosystem?

I follow the art, and there is an extraordinary selection of brilliant artists in the Tezos ecosystem. It felt like the degen culture of Ethereum wasn’t really there on Tezos. People were on Tezos to support and celebrate great art, and that’s a really attractive thing to me, I couldn’t ignore that.


How would you characterize the work on Tezos as distinct from the work you’ve seen on other chains, and in other ecosystems?

From the early Hic et Nunc days, then what’s happened with fxhash, Objkt and Teia, they all felt like quite organic movements where artists are not afraid to collaborate and experiment and make mistakes and make masterpieces. It feels like a democratized space for creators. It’s just a dream for a creative and a collector.


How did the conversation begin around the Tezos Permanent Art Collection?

It was really my idea. I saw that there were not enough artists from diverse backgrounds being celebrated and collected, and as a Black man, I know what it is to be unseen. I was seeing a lot of women, a lot of black and brown people, a lot of gay and trans people, a lot of Latin American people and people that worship different gods not getting the same level of attention. Most of it isn’t nefarious, it’s due to unconscious bias, but I thought, you know what, with the amount of liquidity floating around this space, it’d be amazing to see if Tezos, which has so much great art, would be interested. I spoke to the co-founders of Tezos and the Tezos Foundation and they loved the idea.


How would you describe your main mission with the Permanent Art Collection?

I think in this current bear market, many artists that could become great might give up. Many diverse voices might also give up, just because they’re not being seen. I’m there to make sure that they’re known about, that they are seen, and that their work is celebrated.


Do you have any examples of artists that you feel like you successfully elevated through the art collection or whose work you would like to be better known?

So many. Artists like Blessing Atas, a Nigerian iPhone photographer, whose work was so good that even the people at Apple were shocked when they saw it. Now she has the confidence to believe that this is what she was always supposed to do.


How do you find the artists that you collect?

Having collected a lot of art on Tezos, it’s really easy for me to go down rabbit holes, looking at collector’s wallets. I love what great artists collect, and loads of people in the community support me and send me great work that they love, and we take it from there really.


How do you respond to people who just feel skeptical about Web3 technology in the context of art?

Initially, I always try to show people the kind of art that they will understand as art. So if you’re showing a pixelated monkey or something, to the average person, they may not understand that, but they may understand a photograph or a work by someone like Tania Rivilis. Most people would probably be in awe of that sort of work. That’s how I explain it. And then I talk about the use cases of smart contract technology that go far beyond NFTs. We’re talking about disaster response, schools, insurance, events, travel, and then they think about it in a way that they can begin to articulate.


Do you have a sense of how the conversation around digital art is evolving?

It’s going to take time – there are a minute amount of people that are actually in Web3. Onboarding is really important, and NFTs are playing a big part of it, but the way wallets work, the way payment systems work, having to remember seed phrases and have ledgers… it’s still a bit clunky for a lot of people. Over time, the onboarding part will get easier, and then the utility of the technology available is going to get broader. I think that’s when we’ll see that Eureka moment.

We are all using devices, computers, iPads, and iPhones to view art. There’s going to be a generation where digital art is the only art that they are interested in. It’s very, very interesting where that’s going to go.


Did photography allow you to see the world in a different way?

Yeah, my camera was my sword and shield. It would protect me when I needed to hide behind the viewfinder to see the world in full fidelity. And then it would be my sword because it would fight to show the world what needed to be seen. So this seemingly inanimate object was a singular part of my life that allowed me to see who I was always supposed to be. I’ve always been the same person. It’s just that the camera allowed me to do it in an incredibly powerful way that I never predicted.


How can we avoid the kind of exclusionary attitudes that we sometimes see in parts of the traditional art world from carrying over into the digital art world? Even photography is still not considered ‘real’ art in some circles.

I wanted to do something completely radical with the Permanent Art Collection. The last thing I wanted to do is to pick up any habits from the traditional art world. This is a digital experience, and I want it to be a blueprint for what this space could be. I feel with the kind of artists that are now on show from Brazil, from Argentina, from Iran, from Turkey, in the traditional space, many of those sorts of artists would never have been seen by a traditional gatekeeper.

I actually think photography could have a Renaissance moment with Web3, because it was completely decommodified building unicorn tech companies on the photographic image. I think image makers can take back some value with Web3, and a kind of reverse revolution could happen, where photographers may not need the traditional art world as much as they did.

There are photographers putting their work on blockchains right now, who are out there selling more than many of the top iconic traditional photographers that I grew up admiring. Just pure Web3 photography. There is great art in an incredibly wide range of places in this space, and the more varied the artistic sentiment is in Web3, the richer it is for all of us, I think.

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