By Shanti Escalante-De Mattei
The Obsidian Collection is aiming to be the Getty Images of the Black archive with a metaverse twist.
The goal of the Obsidian Collection, which was founded in 2017, is to build an expansive view of Black history, both past and present, while also helping build generational wealth for the photographers and estates that it works with by offering both commercial licensing and, now, NFTs. This means not only trying to chase down photographs by famous photographers like John Tweedle, whose estate Obsidian has worked with, but also attempting to link up with people like Howard D. Simmons, a photographer who worked with the Chicago Sun-Times and Ebony.
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“Oftentimes, the images that mainstream institutions display have a pretty negative narrative, a lot of poverty and pain,” Angela Ford, the executive director of the Obsidian Collection, said in an interview with ARTnews. “That’s not the sum total of our existence.”
Jointly celebrating Juneteenth and the NFT.NYC conference festivities, the Obsidian Collection this week announced a partnership with Lobus, an artist equity firm that has been developing its blockchain services. Their first drop together, a collection of 15 NFTs of John Tweedle’s photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. during his visit to Chicago in 1966, premiered this past Sunday.
For Ford, the benefit of NFTs lies in its potential to help generate funding for artists.
“The decentralized technology allows any revenues that come today or in the future to go directly to the owners of those archives,” said Ford. “It gives the diaspora economic power as well as curating power directly to these owners and their descendants. It’s empowering.”
She also said that the NFTs allow her to tap a specific collector base, a point that is commonly voiced made by proponents of the space.
“This technology also engages a powerful community,” said Lobus cofounder Lori Hotz, referring not just to NFT collectors, but also to a younger generation of internet users.
Ford described setting out to create a Getty-like portal for Black images before adjusting her vision to be more forward-thinking. After all, the current circulation of images online is hardly dependent on commercial licensing. In Ford’s view, Black creators have been at the forefront of the creator economy and are poised to benefit from the web3 shift.
“Black people have always thrived in a decentralized environment, without the heavy hands of guidance and supervision,” said Ford.
At the same time, so much of the work that Ford does has to do with working with an older generation as she attempts to build up Obsidian’s archive of images while explaining these web3 strategies.
During a dinner hosted by Lobus and the Obsidian Collective at the Harlem restaurant Red Rooster, Ford recounted a conversation she had with a photographer.
“He was over 75, and he was never married and had no children, but he has over 100,000 images that he’s taken over his life and he wants people to see them,” said Ford at the dinner. “He said, ‘Listen, I don’t care that my second cousin may make some money from this.’ What he wanted was his story told.”
By word of mouth, Ford has been trying to find these elders who have seen so much of history. The Obsidian Collective will be host to certain pictures, such as images of Tuskagee airmen and the Ru-Jac Charm School, Black etiquette school in Chicago, that weren’t widely available before. In this way, Ford’s new enterprise will become one way of preserving history.
“These are images that haven’t been seen in decades, literally 40 to 80 years, because they haven’t been digitized,” said Ford. “If we don’t get this information to the future, it’ll be lost.”
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