The booming NFT market is fueling concerns around cultural appropriation of taonga Māori.
Non-fungible tokens or digital assets have become a global phenomenon, fetching up to millions internationally, and can come in the form of digital art, photographs and music.
“I’m already seeing a number of images of ancestors that are from publications being used and manipulated,” said Intellectual Property Cultural Adviser Karaitiana Taiuru.
“There are faces on top of someone else’s body [and] moko from the face being added to other peoples’ faces. They’re inappropriate images and they’re degrading Māori culture.”
Some of the NFTs currently on-sale promote harmful stereotypes of early Māori as violent warriors and a people who frequently murdered their children.
“People who don’t know any different might think, this is Māori culture. That its normal. And they might reproduce that image without knowing that it’s offensive,” Taiuru said.
Māori photographer Rawhitiroa Bosch has recently some of his work converted into NFTs and was shocked at what he saw on the NFT market place OpenSea.
“Literally people getting Google images of a pou whakairo or a mere or a tewhatewha, putting it on OpenSea, and selling it as an NFT. Someone that is ignorant to that would go, ‘oh, this is a Māori thing, OK, I ‘ll buy that.’
He and other Māori and Pasifika NFT creators have been holding regular online wānanga to discuss how they can protect taonga Māori from further exploitation, and create a safe space in the blockchain for te ao Māori to exist and thrive.
One idea they have to create an authenticity stamp to show buyers that their work is in fact Māori-made and can be trusted.
“The idea is to be able to have some sort of way to show, he pakihi Māori tēnei (this is a Māori business). It’s not because we want to control of everything, it’s because we want to help all the Māori artists, and because we want to help the public be able to discern what’s real and what’s not,” he said.
The founder of the Māori NFT project Titan Tiki, Luke Ryan, backed the idea.
“There’s a full market of people who really love te ao Māori, and they really connect with the indigenous cultures of the world, and they’re just looking for authenticity,” he said.
He said it was crucial people did their own background checks on NFT creators before buying.
“If you look at our website at Titan Tiki, we will actually disclose who the founders are, who the team is,” he said.
“If [they’re] using tā moko… [ask] whose family does that belong to? Have you talked to that family?”
The NFT space is completely unregulated and often susceptible to scams.
But a growing number of artists, including Māori, are recognising its benefits too, such as the ability to generate income from royalties, and avoiding paying art galleries or record labels a large cut of their earnings.
“It’s a big thing for me that the mana still sits with the person who created it,” said Rawhitiroa Bosch.
“From a Māori point of view, as the NFT is sold through different people, you can see the whakapapa of that image, of that piece of art, through the blockchain.”
Luke Ryan said it was an opportunity for Māori to share their culture with the world.
“The first word that comes to me is legacy. It’s an opportunity to further the legacy of te ao Māori,” he said.
“I do see it as a really great opportunity to share our culture and educate people on our traditions.”