As South African artist Fhatuwani Mukheli paints a portrait of a woman at his Johannesburg studio, he is creating not only the work before him but also a digital asset destined to adorn a virtual world.

Mukheli uses The Tree, an online marketplace for South African artists to promote and sell their art as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“There’s a virtual world where people are buying land in it,” said Mukheli, referring to the metaverse, a three-dimensional digital reality that tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook say is the future of the internet.

“People have properties there … and your art can be on those walls.”

Mukheli’s customers receive both the actual canvas and the NFT, while other artists on The Tree sell up to five limited edition NFTs for each piece, akin to digital prints. Mukheli has already made thousands of dollars by using the platform.

“I think it’s important as an artist and a creative to always play where the ball is going and not necessarily where it’s at,” said Trevor Stuurman, one of the four other artists currently showcasing their work on The Tree.

Critics say blockchains, digital ledgers used to store information, are not climate-friendly because they guzzle computing power.

The Tree says it saves energy by running on Polygon, a blockchain that uses a fraction of the power, and offsets each transaction by sending money to Greenpop, an environmental organisation that plants trees across Sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s not just about art and artists and the story, it’s about making sure that this growth in technology for artists doesn’t come at a cost to the planet,” said Dan Portal, co-founder of The Tree.


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