Artist Drue Kataoka is on a crusade against the ‘racist and sexist’ NFT space

Japanese American artist Drue Kataoka

In an interview with NextShark, Japanese American artist Drue Kataoka discusses her newest project, which aims to raise money for racial justice and fundamentally challenge the future of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). 

The images Kataoka shares range from unpleasant to disturbing. She lists them with ease: “‘Japanese crap girl’ or ‘fat nerdy chinese kid and his imaginary friend’ caricaturing the Asian male as weird and socially awkward — a stereotype that, alas, has been reinforced for decades by Hollywood.  The African American community has also been a major target of [American graphic artist Michael Joseph Winkelmann’s (known online as Beeple)] over the years with drawings with titles such as: ‘It’s Fun to Draw Black People,’ ‘Black Dude’ and ‘Robot Girl discovers 20th century black dildos (and then it’s on like donkey kong).’ I’ve lost count of the degrading ‘pussy’ images.”

Kataoka describes a project by Beeple called “Everydays,” as the “current North Star in the NFT space.” It sold for a record-breaking $69 million in 2021. Throughout the 5,000 images is what she describes as “rampant racist and sexist imagery.” But “Everydays” does not stand alone: other NFT projects have proliferated with the same degrading content. 

Kataoka would knowfor more than 20 years, she has witnessed firsthand the way racism and misogyny permeate the technological sphere. She works at the intersection of art and technology as an artist, technologist and activist, as well as the CEO of the eponymous Drue Kataoka Art Studios in Silicon Valley. Her latest project, “Will Your Heart Pass the Test?” aims to set a new standard for NFTs. According to the visual artist, it was a long, difficult process. 

“This project is of unparalleled scope and ambition for the NFT space, more like a mini-movie actually. I worked in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic’s ILMxLAB, the legendary immersive entertainment studio, full-time for over five months with a team of over 40 highly skilled professionals, men and women across multiple continents and time zones to create a piece we hope stands the test of time.” 

An unprecedented NFT project 

According to Kataoka, the project is “without question one of my most ambitious projects” and has three main objectives. The first, through its sale, is to “drive energy and build up resources behind two of the most important civil rights organizations of our time: The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and Stop AAPI Hate.” All the proceeds of the auction will be donated to these organizations. Kataoka also plans to “continue the difficult but important conversations that started in 2020.””

Most importantly, however, she hopes that this NFT will “set a new standard in the NFT space for artistry and social impact.” As a technologist, she is “both troubled yet hopeful about where we are headed with important new emerging technologies such as NFTs, XR and the emerging metaverse.”

Drue Kataoka

Image via Drue Kataoka

Emerging technologies among recurring social ills

Kataoka believes we are once again at the precipice of a momentous technological advancement. “These technologies will be more than mainstream: they will be ubiquitous,” she declares. “NFTs and the blockchain, somewhat crudely speaking, are the financial and logistical backbone of the metaverse. Video and images are the primary genre of NFT art today, but soon we will see the transition to more immersive forms such as VR or XR.  The metaverse will fully emerge, and it will subsume our lives.”

It’s important, then, that we build the metaverse in a way that does not simply reinforce the current values of our society. “Our society is troubled right now,” Kataoka says. “Black people and people of color are being murdered on the streets by police. Asian elderly are getting smashed, burned and stabbed to death on their neighborhood sidewalks. Countless in our community are being harassed and endure intolerable injustice and abuse on a daily basis. We need to do something about it.”

Kataoka believes that this responsibility extends to all of us, not just those who work in technology or art: “I do not think that artists have a special responsibility to speak against bigotry.  We all do, regardless of our profession, artistic skills or talents, and each of us has important skills to bring.”

Drue Kataoka Artwork 3

Image via Drue Kataoka

A simple question: “Will Your Heart Pass the Test?”

The inspiration behind the project came from Kataoka’s profound interest in Ancient Egypt. “For me Ancient Egypt is one of the peaks of human civilization — profound, poetic, technologically incredibly advanced and culturally divine.” 

The specific myth referenced in the NFT is from The Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text dating back to more than 3,500 years ago. According to the myth, a person must pass several tests after death before entering the afterlife. One of these involves weighing the deceased person’s heart against a single feather. For the heart to be lighter than the feather, the person must have lived a moral life. Kataoka notes that this particular story “is the origin of the last judgement in all great religions. It is so powerful, and so profound, and this story and its derivatives have shaped the human spirit for the better like few other narratives. It has made us better people and is the origin of moral accountability.”

Drue Kataoka Artwork 2

Image via Drue Kataoka

With the inspiration of this myth, along with the painful experiences in modern society, Kataoka decided to create a new interpretation of the scene. “Our scene is both ancient and modern, the visual vocabulary is both Egyptian and influenced by our Ambrosia artworks which are inspired by Neural Networks and technology,” she shares. “I created the soundtrack with the legendary Skywalker Sound team and included a recording of my own heartbeat, the heartbeat of an Asian woman, as well as excerpts from an original composition that I am playing on my flute. All of this is also interspersed by hundreds of Easter eggs and visual snippets that connect this to our time in both the historical and allegorical sense.”

Drue Kataoka Artwork 1

Image via Drue Kataoka

Kataoka worked with a team of creators and activists for the project. “My partners for this project included many strong, talented, visionary women: Vicki Dobbs Beck, Rebekah Bowling, Dr. Bernice A. King and Cynthia Choi to name a few.” 

We are all a part of this great flow of energy, this great fight for justice, which goes way back, and, I believe, makes us better humans. So I hope that this artwork inspires viewers to look back in order to look forward.” 

“Will Your Heart Pass the Test?” will be auctioned between Dec. 8 and Dec. 15. More information on its sale can be found here.

A live launch took place on the social media platform Clubhouse on December 8.

A closing room will also be held on Clubhouse on December 15 at 11 AM EST. 

Feature via Drue Kataoka

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