18-year-old Diana Sinclair is transforming art on the blockchain
The artist is minting mind-bending NFTs that combine multimedia elements with artificial intelligence and a collective, inclusive spirit
On 28 September, Christie’s will present Diana Sinclair: Phases, the inaugural sale on Christie’s 3.0. It’s a pivotal moment for the 18-year-old artist who works across photography, video, and multimedia layering. One of the creators at the forefront of the NFT photography boom in 2021, she has distinguished herself as a champion of Black artists on the blockchain — from curating the Digital Diaspora, a Juneteenth NFT art exhibition and auction, to collaborating with the Whitney E. Houston Foundation on a unique, multi-generational digital artwork.
On view at Christie's New York, Phases marks Sinclair’s first solo exhibition, concurrent with an online auction on Christie's 3.0 through 11 October. The show takes the form of an immersive multimedia installation that combines digital and physical works — including scrims that serve as shimmering screens for projected images — to explore a timeless theme: transformation. ‘This series has been about trying to live with the art as I've been making it,’ Sinclair says, ‘being fluid and just existing in the present.’
Sinclair is one of the most exciting and formally innovative artists working in the NFT space today, and the works in Phases expand on the rigor and complexity of her experimentation. River Over Stone, a digital artwork that explores how our perception of memories change with the passage of time, is a year-long durational piece, in which the image asset is morphed by artificial intelligence and updated each week.
‘A collective brain is essentially reimagining this artwork over time,’ says Sinclair. ‘It starts with an image of two people. But when you get to the final image, it almost looks like balls of energy.’
Complementing the series of weekly images are songs composed by the multi-instrumentalist and producer Reuel Williams. Williams originally wrote two songs, which he then ran through a computer program he created that analyses the pixel content of the images, with each colour assigned to a musical component, such as speed or pitch. The result is a suite of 52 pieces of music that are responsive to the morphing images.
‘The blockchain opens up unique opportunities to create works that can change and be interactive,’ says Sinclair, ‘which I hope will generate more positive criticism of digital art, showing the use cases for communicating really intense and complicated concepts. There’s so much more that can be done in this space.’
On set, Sinclair fosters a collaborative and open environment with the models, makeup artists, musicians, and other creatives she works with, shifting fluidly between her Polaroid, her camcorder, and her digital camera to capture as much of the moment as possible.
‘I let things happen as they do, and oftentimes when something doesn't work out as I intended, the end result is better than I could have imagined,’ she explains. ‘I've learned to embrace that.’
‘It feels very safe,’ says Williams of the on-set atmosphere on Sinclair’s shoots. ‘You can suggest things or share a laugh. There's such a bond between the people that she works with. It doesn't feel high stakes, and yet you can sense you’re part of something historic.’
Before becoming a phenom of the crypto art world, Sinclair was raised in an artistic and tech-savvy household — her mother is a writer, and her father is an artist and software developer, and they encouraged her to experiment with different media. From an early age, Sinclair started drawing on an iPad. In her tween years, she frequented online art communities, creating digital characters through the social app Draw Something.
At age 13, she turned to drawing and painting in more traditional media — charcoal, watercolour, and acrylic, before pursuing photography and filmmaking. She was named a 2021 National Finalist in Photography by YoungArts, the largest arts competition in the country for high schoolers. Early in 2021, Sinclair befriended a community of 3D and digital artists, many of whom were minting NFTs.
Among them was Itzel Yard, the Afro-Caribbean artist known as IX Shells, who became the highest-selling female NFT artist in 2021, when her artwork Dreaming at Dusk sold for $2 million. IX Shells encouraged Sinclair to start minting her photography on the blockchain, a relatively uncommon phenomenon for fine art photographers at the time.
‘I thought that NFTs were just for 3D artists or illustrators,’ Sinclair recalls. ‘I didn't see much photography. But once I tried it, I wanted to bring more photographers and more Black women into the NFT world, which really grew my personal investment in the space.’
Sinclair became an influential tastemaker on Instagram and Twitter, sharing threads of her favourite digital artists and using her platform to highlight the work of Black creatives. In June 2021, she became one of the youngest curators of digital art with the Digital Diaspora, a Juneteenth art exhibition and NFT auction celebrating the work of Black artists.
That July, Fortune named her one of the 50 most influential people in NFTs. In September 2021, Sinclair’s work was featured in TIME’s first NFT drop, the Genesis Collection. That winter, the 17-year-old Sinclair worked with the Whitney E. Houston Foundation on an NFT featuring art and videos by the digital artist that accompanied an unreleased track Houston had recorded when she was 17. It sold for $999,999, more than five times the highest-selling NFT on the Tezos blockchain at the time.
While Sinclair is judicious about how she spends her ETH, she does collect select NFTs by artists that inspire her. She was recently excited to acquire a digital work by Niall Ashley, a self-taught British painter who makes colourful, expressive works about authority, classism, and racial identity.
Sinclair, along with the photographer Isaac ‘Drifter Shoots” Wright, reprised the Digital Diaspora this Juneteenth, bringing in over 2,000 visitors to the in-person event in New York City. ‘Every type of person was represented and welcomed in that space,’ says Sinclair, ‘which made me really happy because I want to celebrate the art in a way that’s inclusive to all.’ There are plans for another Digital Diaspora event at Miami Basel this December.
When asked what advice she has for young creators curious about minting their own NFTs, her response resonated with the themes of her latest body of work: letting go of fear and staying present. ‘Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there,’ she says. ‘I would not have had access to the opportunities that I have if at first I didn't take that leap of faith.’