Earlier this spring, 24-year-old Alejandra Glez became the first — and youngest — Cuban woman artist to completely sell out an NFT drop, earning Glez just under Ξ3 ETH ($5,700 USD) in only eight minutes. This windfall constitutes a remarkable achievement for any emerging young artist today, but for Glez, who lives in a country where the minimum wage amounts to $485 pesos ($20 USD) per month, this feat has fundamentally redefined her options in the art world. This success also came just in time: Glez and other local artists like her are struggling to survive amid a devastated Cuban economy stemming from restrictions on tourism due to the pandemic and an increased cost of food and resources recently implemented by the Cuban government that spurred mass protests, which led to severe and chilling government crackdowns.
Glen's art allows her to access a different financial network. NFTs or non-fungible tokens are pieces of code that store information about a unique digital file. Developed to authenticate digital art, NFTs have become known as the playthings of bros who dominate the crypto world, keen to mint anything for profit. But they are not a game for Cuban artists like Glez: “I began creating art at 16 [years old] to reconcile with how to live in a society that’s heavily machista, and as a way of healing from traumas from my childhood, and sexual assault as a teen.” Creating NFTs represents a rare opportunity not only because of the financing that becomes available to her, but also because of what the medium itself allows her to do with art.
Glez partnered with Cuba-based, all-woman digital art collective Clit Splash’s co-founder and curator Luisa Ausenda, who is set on challenging the gimmicky perception of NFTs. Ausenda founded Clit Splash with friend and fellow art curator Gladys Garrote to promote socially responsible NFTs, which tend to reward already established artists who are largely white and male. Their artists, too, are women, BIPOC, and queer. The collective recently auctioned Canadian woman artist and trans rights activist Klara Yennefer Vollstaedt’s virtual reality painting “Spirit of the Seas” through Foundation in collaboration with Vollstaedt herself and Cuban master drummer Rodney Barreto. “Spirit of the Seas,” with crashing purple waves against a lone ship, echoes Vollstaedt’s own explorative feelings of NFTs.
Though many remain puzzled about the point of NFTs, or uninterested in purchasing art that can’t be hung on walls, the work of artists like Glez and Vollstaedt prompts collectors to invest in them for the same reasons we take pictures, record TikToks, or send texts: to capture feelings, understand others, and be connected. The theme of human connection is an integral part of Glez’s ouvre. Through her live performances and portraits of women impacted by gender-based violence, Glez exploits nudity as the way of regaining agency while humbly reaching for an intimate connection with her audience. By exposing herself and the women she captures, her audience is pressed to reflect on mental health and domestic and sexual violence, severely neglected issues throughout Latin America.
Glez’s NFT drop included the diptych “Deep Sea: Absence and Presence.” In the spellbinding piece, a seemingly infinite number of women’s bodies are submerged in the sea, then disappear, accompanied by calm yet harrowing piano music. Glez tells Refinery29 her art was focused on the under-examined realities that Cuban and other women face worldwide, “by exploring the lives of women claimed by femicides, migrant women enduring extreme hardship, and victims of gender-based violence.” She hopes the work will resonate at a human level with all audiences.
Through Glez and Vollstaedt’s experiences, NFTs are revealed as a form of emancipation. “NFTs do a really good job of opening the floor to a lot of different people,” says Vollstaedt, who believes that the digital aspect of the art makes it inherently more democratic and accessible. “It’s nice to see trans people making art that they want to make without it having to be tied to their identity, and seeing cis people interact with trans artists outside of a context like a pride march.” For Glez, the main appeal of NFTs isn’t in its singularity, but rather about the control she’s able to maintain in her work: “What’s most important to me is that this drop contains my unapologetically feminist work; it’s not art made for the sole intention of being minted.”
But the financial benefits are impossible to ignore. Even if most of the hype surrounding NFTs focuses on the works of blue-chip artists like Damien Hirst, emerging artists in countries like Cuba are poised to make money. Unlike the traditional art market, in which artists only see a profit for the first sale of their work, NFTs set a new standard for benefiting creators. As Ausenda points out, “You can write into the code how much you can claim from future sales.” At Snark.art, for example, the NFT marketplace where Glez made her first NFT drop, digital artists make 70% of the first sale, and 10% in royalties. Artists can also collaborate with Snark.art to find alternative blockchains that are more environmentally friendly.
“NFTs have given me the ability to support my studio, while providing me with the opportunity to enter the virtual art world, through which I can realize concepts that are simply impossible to explore in real life,” Glez elaborates. These concepts include an allegory for women’s lives in one of her debut NFTs, “Explosive Breasts,” where she depicts breasts first as holy flesh floating under an angelic spotlight, and then, violently swung and squeezed to erupt milk before they are forcefully squished against the screen.
The digital nature of NFTs enables emerging artists, like Glez, from countries in the developing world, to reach a global audience with her work, something that many North American and European artists may take for granted. Digital artists in Cuba still face many other obstacles to working with NFTs, such as a lack of exchangeable cryptocurrencies, with U.S. sanctions blocking web-accessible digital wallets, and the poor state of Cuba’s wireless network infrastructure — it wasn’t until 2018 that Cuba introduced 3G roaming.
Aside from the financial autonomy that NFTs confer on creators, NFTs are also immensely relevant to Cuban women and queer artists worldwide who are disenfranchised by heavily conservative and patriarchal societies. “This is why there are platforms specifically tailored for women such as Clubhouse’s Women in NFTs,” emphasizes Ausenda. Women of Cryptoart is another community sharing information on how to support women artists while highlighting their work. With the rise of NFTs, artists like Glez and Vollstaedt can push past physical, financial, and cultural barriers to truly set their self-expression free.