“Art saved me” — how web3 reached an Indian cult and empowered Joanna's self-expression

Steph Kunkel
August 12, 2022
“We were so brainwashed and isolated from the world that any act of freedom was seen as a disgrace” — Joanna

Joanna captures images of the ordinary and overlays her work with self-portraits, creating ethereal compositions that shed a light on mental health. She spoke to Steph Kunkel about her journey growing up in a restrictive Indian cult, and how web3 empowered her to embrace her individual identity and self-expression.

Joanna was born into a cult in Western India, where strict rules govern everything from drugs and alcohol to dancing, music, and romance. Instead, Joanna turned to art at a young age, filling her sketchbook with drawings, then later moving into photography. She remains tied into the secluded society because of her family, but mentally she has already gone. “It’s like I have to start from scratch,” she says, “I feel like a newborn forced to take upon a new world.”

Joining Instagram in 2013 inspired Joanna to establish an identifiable photography and editing style: showcasing the beauty behind the dark and the morbid. She shares that her brother jests: “she’ll make a sunrise dark,” emphasising her use of overlays and contrast photo-editing to exhibit a dark-scape. One of her photographs, I don’t belong here, went viral in 2020; it was only then that she began to see her artwork in a new light and take her craft seriously.

I don’t belong here is a self-portrait depicting the feeling of being the odd one out; being in a room full of people and feeling out of place; wanting to have someone – just one person – who ‘gets us'. It’s the yearning to feel the warmth of belonging.”

Eventually, Joanna started exploring Twitter and posting her photographs there. “I had no idea what an NFT or web3 was. I began seeing things about crypto on Twitter and it piqued my interest.” Joanna would spend days researching blockchains and web3, learning about the space on her own. She started on Tezos, encouraged by a friend who helped her set up a wallet and sent her 1 tez (around £5 at the time).

Since then, Joanna has brought together over 700 collectors with her art, including pieces featured in the Tezos Permanent Collection. Joanna is also a big collector herself, with over 800 pieces in her gallery. Particularly responsible for her prolific work both as an artist and collector is the photezNFTs community, which she describes as a “warm and welcoming environment with so many talented artists that inspire me.”

“Web3 opened up an avenue that I could never have imagined.”

— Joanna

Joanna reveals that whenever someone in her cult performed a sin or transgression, it would be included in the church sermon, exacerbating feelings of guilt and shame; making people feel as though they were on display. “Freedom to me means doing anything without feeling guilty. To forget that some higher power is constantly watching and judging me. To live life to the fullest without the fear of some deity putting me in hell for the rest of my life.” Joanna translates this freedom into her art by being unapologetically true to herself.

Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness is based on my experience of being born in a cult. We were so brainwashed and isolated from the world that any act of freedom was seen as a disgrace and you were shamed for it; you were made to feel guilty.”

Throughout her life Joanna has suffered from mental health issues and uses her art as a creative escape. Her success in web3 has provided the confidence and space to fully embrace that outlet in an untainted way, with themes of mental illness appearing across her work. By building a community directly around her and her art, NFTs have given Joanna an opportunity to create art that speaks deeply to both her and her audience. There is no particular colour palette to translate her feelings, but Joanna utilises double exposures to add contrast and depth to her photographs.

Joanna’s creative process encompasses the randomness and mundanity of everyday life. She does not wait for anything exceptionally beautiful or sensational to happen to capture a photograph. She does not seek out a particularly scenic view or wait for the light to hit her focal point a certain way. Instead, Joanna captures the ordinary moments in our lives and uses this snapshot to transform her work into something ethereal.

Joanna plays with the concept of anonymity by not showing her full face in self-portraits, blocking off sections of an image and inducing feelings of prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterised by the inability to recognise faces. The viewer is only able to see fragments or portions of her face; these missing parts evoke a sense of curiosity and mystery behind her artwork.

“I have a habit of photographing everything that I find interesting, be it the smallest, most mediocre thing. Be it the sky, a tiny flower, or raindrops on a window.” Then that picture will sit in her gallery until she finds the inspiration to edit it, and the edit will sit again until Joanna takes a self-portrait. After that, she creates a double exposure with two images: the self-portrait and one of the many “mediocre things” she’s photographed.  She merges these two different photos together, each on their own days with their own circumstances and emotional connections, to create a new story and a new work of art.

Cease to exist refers to “my constant desire to end my life and just rest eternally” — Joanna.

Currently, Joanna’s focus is to “shine a light on Tezos photographers” whilst developing her own work to maintain the space’s reputation as “an undiscovered mine of talent.” Eager to continue experimenting and sharing breathtaking cryptoart, Joanna appreciates how, through web3, she was able to “find people who relate to my art,” adding that “they can buy it if they really vibe with it. This pushes me to make better art – for myself and the viewer.”

By drawing inspiration from the mundanity, nostalgia, and melancholy of everyday life and synthesising that with her own personal journey, Joanna’s artwork sends a message to her audience that beauty can be found anywhere. Her artwork lends itself to the fantastical, the dreamlike, the surreal, to create transfixing and awe-inspiring works of art one can lose themselves in.

She concludes, “my art has to make me feel something, anything, even if for a brief, fleeting moment.” In sharing her art with the world, Joanna wants to share these feelings with you as well.

“Art is being stripped naked, opening myself up, and saying, ‘here, look at me, look at my vulnerabilities’.”

— Joanna

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Written by
Steph Kunkel
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Steph Kunkel is a US-based writer, choreographer, and brand/marketing specialist. She is an art enthusiast with a passion for all things creative. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, drawing, and dancing.

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