In the era of digital innovation, the art world is evolving to address challenges relating to conventional notions of ownership, authenticity and the legal and moral norms that govern creation in this space. One burgeoning leader in this virtual revolution is Chidi Nwaubani, an award-winning British-Nigerian product designer and visionary entrepreneur leveraging cutting-edge technology to decolonise historically significant artworks by virtual means. Through his groundbreaking NFT-based startup named LOOTY, Nwaubani tackles the controversy surrounding the repatriation of seized artworks head-on by cleverly circumventing copyright principles to ultimately redefine how these works of art are reimagined, recreated, reexperienced and, most importantly, reclaimed. In this piece, we will explore the inspiring concept behind LOOTY and how this tech-savvy restitution effort is reshaping the art world.
So, what is LOOTY exactly? Let's start by unpacking the name. While one may simply assume that the project's name can be chalked up to a playful take on the word "loot" to signify the rampant looting of developing nations during the heydays of colonialism, that assumption would only be somewhat correct. According to Nwaubani, a great source of inspiration while naming his venture was a very special and royal Pekingnese pooch named Looty, who, many years ago, was trafficked by French soldiers from Beijing to Europe and ultimately gifted to the late Queen Victoria. This double entendre is entirely deliberate, with Nwaubani noting that the name intends to pay homage to both the heartbreaking colonial pillaging suffered across Asia and Africa together with making a more lighthearted reference to Queen Victoria's furry companion.
The project is a collaborative art collective focused on reclaiming colonial artworks and preserving cultural heritage in developing nations by providing a globally accessible platform where artists, collectors, and enthusiasts can trade digital representations of culturally relevant art transparently and securely. How do they achieve this goal, might you ask? Well, their modus operandi is quite similar to that high-tech heist scene from your favourite action film, except this heist is executed without a smidge of violence and with complete legal compliance. LOOTY sends its talented representatives, clad in conspicuous facial coverings (how else could they get into character?), into some of the most prolific museums in the world with incredibly high-tech gadgets and applications to digitally capture ancient artefacts and generate 3D images based on these physical works. Once the 3D renderings are captured, the LOOTY team then proceed to creatively convert these 3D images into NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to sell on the Metaverse. While the collective is inherently rooted in anti-colonialist activism, it has a unique approach and contribution to the cause. Instead of getting caught up in the anger and anarchy of activism, LOOTY confronts charged conversations surrounding the restitution of seized artworks with muted defiance and a sense of optimism, confidence and unshakeable commitment to the cause.
So, what inspired Chidi to take this hands-on approach to restitution? To put it plainly, it was the blasé, "sorry, not sorry" attitude colonial nations have shown toward conversations surrounding repatriation. He recognised that the traditional art world often sidelines artists from underrepresented communities, and many artworks from non-Western cultures are held in foreign institutions far, far away from their birthplace. Frustrated by leadership's habitual bobbing and weaving to find excuses to delay or entirely deny repatriation, Nwaubani took matters into his own hands.
In my view, LOOTY is actioning a four-pronged strategy to empower artists;
Decolonising Art Ownership: A tenet central to LOOTY's mission statement is the empowerment of artists and communities whose art has historically been exploited or marginalised. Traditional art markets have long favoured a select few artists, leaving countless others ostracised. LOOTY democratises the art world by giving absolutely anyone a chance to sell their works and gain recognition online. It has leveraged technology to digitise and tokenise art to cut out the middleman and ensure that artists retain control and ownership of their work.
Cultural Repatriation: Nwaubani has developed a powerful online platform to facilitate the repatriation of cultural artefacts and pave the way for more equitable exchanges and (hopefully) the eventual return of stolen or unlawfully acquired artworks. By digitising iconic artworks, LOOTY introduces communities and nations to the opportunity to experience these artworks and trade their heritage on their own terms.
Transparent Ownership and Provenance: By leveraging the unrestrained force and record–keeping capabilities of blockchain technology, LOOTY has created an immutable history of an artwork's origins. This fact is incredibly significant when considering the core motivation behind the movement. By trading art on the blockchain, artists can track the ownership of their works, and collectors can verify the authenticity of their acquisitions. The transparency of the system that LOOTY has the potential to revolutionise how the world safeguards and values cultural artefacts and is a testament to the power of technology to effect transformative change when harnessed for a noble cause.
Community Engagement: LOOTY encourages community engagement by giving collectors a say in the direction of the platform. How, you may ask? Well, in the spirit of inclusivity and shared ownership, owners of LOOTY NFTs can participate in governance decisions which allows members to take ownership of more than just their tokens purchased.
While LOOTY shows immense promise, it is not without its challenges. The intersection of technology, art and law is incredibly complex and unpredictable, and navigating international legal frameworks for the repatriation of cultural artefacts is not for the faint of heart. Nwaubani's venture continues to spark debate over copyright principles, intellectual property law, and cultural sovereignty. By forcing the narrative into the spotlight, LOOTY has ensured that collaborative efforts between governments, artists, collectors, museums and legal experts will need to transpire to address these challenges and questions effectively.
For better or worse, art has always mirrored the state of culture, history, and human creativity. Yet, when examining the past, the global art market has been plagued with controversies over stolen artefacts, cultural appropriation, and power imbalances. Once you have taken the plunge into LOOTY's fascinating and provocative world of cultural and technological charms, you can't help but marvel at Nwaubani's innovative approach to reshaping the fine art world and challenging these conventional norms. Nwaubani's ambitions for LOOTY extend far beyond the platform itself. He considers art as a powerful vehicle for education, dialogue, collaboration, advocacy and most importantly, change. This change could hopefully lead to an art world that is more equitable, transparent, and inclusive. Nwaubani's visionary approach to fine art is sending shockwaves through the industry and will no doubt leave an indelible mark in the history books.
Beyond kickass NFTs, LOOTY hosts insightful forums, panel discussions, and exhibitions to raise awareness about the significance of cultural heritage and the revolutionary role that technology can play in righting past wrongs. As the movement continues to blossom in the cultural zeitgeist, it will no doubt also give way to some interesting reforms in intellectual property law – I, for one, will be watching with bated breath. Explore all things LOOTY by following the links below;
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Venicy, Italy: Bienalle Architettura 2023: Present–26 November 2023