33-year-old Pakistani designer and entrepreneur, Zain Naqvi, has been affiliated with the Pakistani startup ecosystem since 2014. Currently working as the co-founder and Head of Design at Alter, a local platform that aids creators and companies from emerging economies connect with collectors (of digital collectibles and NFTs) the world over, the company made headlines in 2021 after it auctioned off one of Pakistan’s most well-known, viral memes, the 2015 ‘Friendship ended with Mudasir,’ for 20 Ethereum tokens (a whopping $51,000).
Ever since Naqvi’s foray into the Web3 space, the designer has worked on Ape Harbour, the world’s first metaverse shipyard and is currently involved in a project which is reimagining some of the apes part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), including curating one of the biggest exhibitions of NFT and digital collectibles in the country, set to take place early next month. Additionally, Naqvi’s work has been featured in a number of international publications, including the Venice Biennale’s Imago Mundi Project.
In conversation with Forbes Life, Naqvi spoke about Web3’s rapid evolution, why younger creatives need to stop playing it safe and instead, continue pushing the envelope in terms of innovation, and much more…
SR: What inspired you to Web3?
ZN: Having grown up in Pakistan in the 90s, the social scene was very limited and the internet was a new and exciting world. I remember talking to people on MSN and mIRC and participating in LAN parties, where we would carry our PCs to a central location to play games together. Many of the people I knew back then on these forums are now professionals transforming entire creative industries in Pakistan.
As the internet evolved, I’ve been a part of the shift from Web1, to the social media-driven Web2 and now Web3, which I believe offers a more democratic and decentralized approach to the internet. I was very fortunate to have worked early on in the digital collectibles space in a project called Ape Harbor which utilized the Bored Ape Yacht Club IP to create the world’s first Metaverse shipyard. Working on this project was a great experience and led me to become a part of BAYC, the most premier project in the Web3 ecosystem. This allowed me a lot of freedom in terms of my own creativity and standing within the space.
SR: How has Web3 evolved since you made your foray into the space in 2020?
ZN: When I first entered the space, there was a lack of focus on design and curation and more of an ‘anything goes’ approach. However, over time, the space has developed its own aesthetic and has transformed the relationship between the digital and physical worlds. The space has also become more international, with the Asia and MENA regions seeing a rise in Web3 startups. Back then there was nobody there, even some of the biggest founders I was talking to in 2020 and 2021 were just not convinced about the power of Web3, although these were visionaries in their own right.
Another key difference that I noticed was that there were very few people from my background. It felt like a largely homogenous environment at the time. However, as the space has grown and become more international, I have seen a greater diversity of backgrounds and perspectives represented. This is a positive development, as it allows for a wider range of ideas and experiences to be shared and included in the conversation. Although Web3 can still use more women leaders, creators and developers.
SR: As Head of Design at your company, what’s the selection process like when it comes to selecting artworks (or agreeing to work with creators) to put forward to interested collectors?
ZN: Two words. Relevance and provenance. Does the work or creator have something original to say, or are they just excited to jump on the hype train? Provenance, because day in and day out people reach out to us to sell stuff that doesn’t belong to them and in a place like South Asia, trademarks and copyrights are murky territory. As a curator I need to be sure of the fact that what I’m buying or selling is coming from the right source.
SR: Do you think the popularity of local memes (like the two sold through Alter) and NFTs by Pakistani artists are on the rise in crypto art markets? If yes, why do you think it’s gaining momentum? What are we doing on home turf that intrigues foreign buyers?
ZN: Memes are internet native and can have a following globally despite having a very local origin. However, they are not necessarily tied to a specific location and can be shared and enjoyed globally.
The dynamics of a meme sale are different from those of a contemporary art or crypto art sale, as memes are of the internet and have their own unique characteristics and value in the history of the medium itself. Many artists in the space are working on high fantasy, South Asian futurism, or other innovative concepts that can be difficult to fully grasp at first in context to the preconceived notions about contemporary society in the country. It is also important to consider the cultural and historical perspective of Pakistani art, both within the contemporary art world and in the realm of digital collectibles and NFTs. These artists are creating visual practices that are entirely their own, despite having numerous influences. I think what makes these works unique is the mix of influences and formal concerns they are representative of.
SR: Many are still slowly coming around to understanding Web3: what should artists and designers know about the space that would encourage them to enter into the Web3 domain?
ZN: It’s important for creatives and artists entering the space to consider the roles they can play beyond simply creating and selling NFTs. These roles can include collecting, curating, strategizing, and designing products. It is important to be focused and clear about what one wants to bring to the table and work towards that goal, rather than trying to do everything at once. One particular gripe I have with my peers and younger creatives is that they often put themselves into a corner when it comes to the type of work they want to do.
When entering a new realm, it is important to take a balanced approach and consider both the old and new systems. This can involve keeping certain elements of the old system while introducing new ideas and innovations.
SR: How would you define a good NFT artwork? Are there any that you absolutely love?
ZN: For me, a good NFT artwork should do something that traditional painting, sculpture or new media cannot. This could involve using blockchain technology, data, machine learning or AI in innovative ways. It should also have a clear direction or movement beyond just being an illustration or digital collectible. It needs to push the envelope as a message as well as a medium.
Recently, I collected a piece from an AI Artist who goes by the name of Memory Mod. I’m also a huge fan of Claire Silver who’s one of the pioneers of the NFT space globally. From across the border, Amrit Pal Singh’s work is something I’m proud to have in my collection. I’ve also been bidding and negotiating like crazy to get a specific piece from the Turkish phenomenon, Refik Anadol.
SR: Do you think music NFTs can be lucrative for musicians minus big record labels in the long-run?
ZN: As someone who is familiar with the technology and trends in the digital space, I believe that music NFTs could potentially become the next big thing in the coming months. There are already platforms and communities in place for decentralized music streaming and royalty services, such as Royal, Decent and Opus. The relationship between physical and digital media is also an important factor to consider, as the success of the iPod was largely due to the rise of mp3s. As this relationship is better understood in the Web3 space, we may see even more growth and innovation in the music and NFT industry. I think labels would exist but they’ll be of a newer kind. Like what Netflix is to Blockbuster. Same domain but disruptive distribution.
SR: What advice would you give to those hoping to sell their artworks as NFTs? Is there anything they should keep in mind before flocking to NFT auction sites?
ZN: It’s important to understand the distinctions between different genres and platforms. It can be confusing for someone trying to understand your work if it’s presented in the wrong context, and it’s important to know which NFT sites are best suited for your style of art. Additionally, I believe it’s important to focus on creating value rather than just seeking profit. Money is the result of value, and if we focus too much on creating a facade of success rather than actually creating value, it can lead to issues like the current market situation and financial crunch.