In early 2021, Iris Nevins, a longtime art collector, officially dedicated her career to uplifting artists.
She originally planned to create an online store for artists to sell their work, along with her co-founder, Omar Desire. But when she learned about NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, in 2020, she decided the technology would be a “much more profound way to help artists.”
“We thought that we could do more, have bigger impact and generate more revenue for the artists, for ourselves, [with NFTs] than trying to sell prints and paintings online,” Nevins, 29, tells CNBC Make It.
In February 2021, Nevins and her team launched NFT studio Umba Daima, which promotes artists and educates people about Web3. Among its many offerings, the Umba Daima team manages and consults with artists, earning a percentage of their sales, and helps build online communities for marketplaces.
Umba Daima also launched a number of sub-brands, which it oversees. The first was Black NFT Art, followed quickly by the NFT Roundtable podcast and virtual exhibit The Unseen Gallery.
“We noticed that the artists that were having a lot of success had these really strong communities around them that were promoting or reposting on social media or participating in their drops,” Nevins says. The studio launched Black NFT Art “in an attempt to create that kind of experience for Black artists.”
One example of Umba Daima’s success is artist Andre Oshea, who the company managed for about four and a half months. His NFT sales were low when he first started working with Umba Daima, but now, “Andre Oshea is one of the top Black artists in the space,” Nevins says.
In 2021, Umba Daima made $140,000 in revenue from all of its brands.
Though it’s a milestone, the team is still bootstrapping. Nevins hasn’t paid herself, even though she quit her day job to focus on Umba Daima full-time. Most of her team members are essentially volunteers, she says, although she pays them when she can. “We’re a good way from being profitable, but I’m hoping that it can happen soon.”
She’s thankful for people like Tonya Evans, professor at Pennsylvania State Dickinson Law, and Kyle Hill, head of crypto at consultancy platform Troika IO, who have helped Umba Daima along the way. “It’s been really nice, especially as a Black woman founder, to have people provide so much support and believe in me so much,” Nevins says.
‘Crypto, blockchain and NFT use are so important’
Nevins is passionate about equity and social justice, and sees blockchain technology as a tool to work toward closing the wealth gap, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest data from the World Inequality Report shows.
In 2021, the top 10% of the global population owned 76% of total household wealth, whereas the bottom 50% owned 2%, according to the report.
That type of inequality is “why I think that crypto, blockchain and NFT use are so important,” Nevins says. “It’s a technology that allows us to create a whole new economic system in which the power can be rebalanced.”
Nevins sees little possibility for traditional financial systems to be reworked and thinks that building something new is necessary to uplift people who are marginalized and underrepresented.
Work to be done
However, the NFT space still isn’t perfect.
When first starting out, Nevins noticed a lack of diversity in the industry and saw an opportunity to build a more equitable space for creators of color. “There weren’t many Black artists, or if they were there, they were really hard to find,” she says. “You didn’t see Black artists generating much sales.”
Additionally, many of the top NFT marketplaces require creators to apply or be invited to list their work. But Nevins says she’s noticed some platforms not accepting or inviting artists of color.
The current application process for many NFT marketplaces also enforces a culture where only those with an “in” can succeed, Nevins says. “That’s problematic because if you’re not actively building relationships with Black people in the space, how are you going to get Black artists on the platform?” she says.
Nevins hopes that one day, those same NFT marketplaces will change their practices and work more closely with community builders, like Black NFT Art.
“The marketplaces all benefit from the work that people like myself do,” she says. “It’s disappointing when a lot of these platforms don’t make an effort to collaborate with us. [They] can do more to partner with grassroots organizers.”
What’s next for Umba Daima
Looking ahead, Nevins is excited to see growth of Black-owned NFT platforms, including The Well and Disrupt Art, this year. She’s also excited to see more film, music and dance NFTs in the market.
In fact, Umba Daima’s first one-of-one NFT drop is slated for February, and will include work from popular artists like Shaylin Wallace and Dominique Weiss, among others.
“We want to be able to help all of the artists that we collaborate with get their flowers and grow through that process,” she says. “I think most people’s association with NFTs is CryptoPunks. They haven’t actually sat down and looked at what regular artists are creating.”
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