For the Colombian artist, the metaverse represents a “blank space” which she can “occupy on [her] own terms.” Her debut NFT collection in collaboration with Assembly sees her do just that
“Several years ago, I realised photography is good for a lot of things,” muses Cristina Velásquez. “But it’s not good at telling stories.”
This was not a passing reflection. Velásquez’s feelings toward the nature of the medium were already a self-proclaimed “obsession”; her practice a daily study of “the role of the photograph, the artist and image.” But the realisation ignited a shift away from her creative origins in New York – dominated by a documentary-style, narrative-oriented photography scene – towards a quest for the “moment”. That is, a moment “where you could feel or connect, [and] where you don’t need to unfold everything completely.”
Several years on, Velásquez’s latest revelation has led her to the world of NFTs. In collaboration with Assembly, she is selling a series of 40 images representing the last four years of her oeuvre, made between her native Colombia, Mexico and New York. Available now on OpenSea, the collection is titled El Nuevo Mundo, taking its name from the same colonial designation (‘The New World’) cast onto the Americas during the so-called ‘age of discovery’.
Crucially, the work reaches back to that critical moment of realisation in Velásquez’s early career — during which time she had begun travelling twice-yearly back to Colombia. “Every time I came to Latin America,” she recalls, “the good pictures happened.” Transfixed by the “amazing vastness” of Latin American culture, a rich seam of art, history and literature opened up to her. Photography offered a chance to “reclaim her identity”, to attempt to “understand its complexities”, and to “create moments of belonging.”
Yet where inspiration engulfed Velásquez, so did the realisation of how her culture was perceived and represented by those outside of it. Namely, its subjection to the forces of oppressive cultural “translation”: the West’s simplification, sanitisation and erasure of indigenous people, territory and values. To confront this “colonial, white mono-narrative” became – and continues to be – Velásquez’s driving motivation. For her, the appeal of NFTs is a logical continuation of this “act of resistance.” The metaverse represents a “blank space” which she can “occupy on [her] own terms”; a space “not so bound to patriarchal ideas.”
Entering the NFT world has been a whirlwind for Velásquez, plunging her into a brand new community, new “language and logic,” and a set of “entirely different conversations.” Nonetheless, she is enlivened by the prospect of marrying a traditional studio practice (characterised by weaving as well as photography) with the new technology of NFTs, and she is assured in her creative integrity. “The quality and the rigour of the work depends entirely on me,” she explains. “[The platform] doesn’t change the way I make the work.”
“I’m trying to blur the authorship line. I want the subject to present themselves with their own agency, on their own terms”
Resisting categorisation into series or sequences, the work that makes up El Nuevo Mundo strives to be “self-sustaining”, each piece deemed “important” in its own way. Crucially, the images – steeped in Latin American metaphor and visual language – serve to counteract the “Eurocentric tendencies” that shaped Velásquez’s education, and which continue to fuel imbalances of power across race, class and labour distribution.
The subjects that feature are friends of Velásquez, yielding intimate portraits forged through theatrical, improvised acts of collaboration. Their identities are deliberately obscured through careful cropping, or masked through props and gestures; indicative of the artist’s “protective… motherly tendency” towards her sitters (or, further still, her fastidious ethics of representation). “I’m trying to blur the authorship line,” Velasquez says. “I want the subject to present themselves with their own agency, on their own terms.”
At once playful and critical, El Nuevo Mundo testifies to a fervent admiration for photography — but also to photography’s limitations, vulnerability and failures. The work’s potency lies both in its overdue presentation of a silenced culture, and in its restraint whilst doing so. But also, crucially, in the way it allows audiences to find their own way; to “bring [their] own story.” This is the art of diplomacy, after all. Never is an argument so persuasive as the one we believe we’ve come to ourselves.
Velásquez’s art is not one of storytelling, but of feeling. It is the art of reconsidering, and experiencing something altogether more lyrical. In her words: “The only way to understand photography is to understand poetry.”
El Nuevo Mundo by Cristina Velásquez is available on OpenSea.
Louise Long is a London-based photographer and writer with a focus on culture and travel. Her work has been published in Wallpaper*, CEREAL, British Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller amongst others. She is also the founder of Linseed Journal, an independent publication exploring culture and local identity.