“Art saved me in a really profound way” — culture, society, and femininity through the eyes of a blockchain creator

Ola Kalejaye
August 20, 2022
“For society to make sense of a piece, it needs to be felt. That’s what NFTs did” — Tan-Tan

Tan-Tan is synthesising an entirely new style of art on web3. Indian-born and trained in the Flemish style, she speaks to Ola Kalejaye about overcoming imposter syndrome by developing her own style, how her feminism manifests in her art, and how an individual can change society.

Skeptical. Over the course of an hour-long interview, that is the word that the traditionally-trained painter turned digital artist, Tan-Tan uses most to describe herself.

Skeptical of society today; how it defines culture, or gender; of people’s intentions, of the idea that anyone can change the world. Skeptical because of different challenges and situations that she has faced, ones that brought with them a healthy dose of existential crisis. 

And yet, in the art that Tan-Tan both consumes and creates, there is a healthy dose of optimism. It is art that has allowed the Delhi-native to parse through the chaotic world around her. It is art, she says, that saved her. Now, as a digital artist riding the tides of the crypto-driven artistic renaissance, she is allowing the camaraderie and enthusiasm of today’s online artist communities to wash away more of the cynicism.

“I was really introverted; I would just stay in my studio and paint for days. I feel like coming into NFTs I’m getting over that fact. The friendships and connections I’ve fostered have been really great: the NFT space made me gain a bit of faith back in humanity.”

“Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan; // The proper study of mankind is man.” A still from Creation- God is wise, by Tan-Tan.

The anime influence in Tan-Tan’s art strikes the viewer almost immediately, and is core to her work. “I was first introduced to animes and mangas really early on. I felt like it played a really important role for me as an artist and in my artistic journey. The fact that you can experience a lot of stories and a lot of characters has really appealed to me since I was a kid.”

“For society to make sense of a piece, it needs to be tangible, almost be felt. And I feel that’s what NFTs did.”

— Tan-Tan

The epic scale and variety of storytelling of anime is a particularly notable influence on Tan-Tan, given how storytelling is a major part of both her artwork and the considerable context and world-building that she puts into each piece. “Anime was kind of a life-altering experience for me. It puts you in a mindset that, at the end of the day, you are the hero. You might not change the world, but you are on a heroic journey.”

"Beautiful surfaces without depth // Precious without truth // Are sensational // Not profound reflections." East of Eden, by Tan-Tan.

Of course, equally important to Tan-Tan’s artistic style is her background as a painter trained in the neoclassical school. As individual artists go, Tan-Tan notes the French artist of the same style, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, as a particularly important influence. Yet as much as Tan-Tan was inspired by the classical beauty of Bouguereau's work and the renaissance masters before him, those works induced somewhat of an imposter's syndrome for Tan-Tan.

“As I grew up, I was more introduced to Renaissance art. I went to New Zealand for some time and saw these amazing Renaissance paintings. And I felt so incomplete as an artist, just the idea that these masters could draw and paint like that, I felt inferior to them in every way, as an artist.”

Those feelings of inferiority impacted Tan-Tan’s ability to fully express herself as an artist. By merely attempting to copy the masters, and subsequently feeling like her work couldn’t come close, she felt as though she was “losing a lot of self-expression.” Ironically, she notes that a lack of artistic expression was a criticism widely levied in response to Bouguereau's work as well.

While his work did centre around an “academic style of painting” that was more focused, for Tan-Tan, self-expression was the ultimate point of her artistic endeavors. It is in this need that the perfect synthesis of traditional and new, of classical and digital, was born. Through combining the skills from her traditional schooling with her grasp of digital techniques and a love for the manga style, Tan-Tan is able to find a more authentic expression of who she is. In her words, adding digital tools to her arsenal allowed her to experiment more and let her paintings “breathe”.  

Girl with a Pearl Earring is partly inspired by a quote from the 19th century American painter, Robert Henri: “Courage to go on developing this ability to see in nature the thing which charms you, and to express just that as fully and completely as you can.”

At the heart of Tan-Tan’s stories are the ever-present manga-inspired heroes. These figures are where Tan-Tan’s work most clearly and intentionally deviates from the work of the masters that inspire her.

“As I looked more into art history, I realised that there is a specific feminine that is depicted. It's not right or wrong; I would say it was the norm at the time. And I feel like speaking to my generation, and speaking in my time, the female figures that I want to portray just differ from how the classical masters used to portray them.”

As far as how Tan-Tan would portray her female figures, she sees the subjects of her work as a representation of Carl Jung’s theory of ‘Anima and Animus’. “It relates to what the psyche is: every female has a masculine part of their personality, and every male has a feminine part of their personality. My female figures represent the masculine in the feminine. The idea that there is no real distinction, and that it's just an amalgamation of your psyche, which has both.”

As a primarily digital artist, NFTs quickly made sense to Tan-Tan. Moreover, they offered far more than simply an avenue to sell art. They materialised digital art in a way that has shifted its perception in the eyes of millions.

“For society to make sense of a piece, it needs to be tangible, almost be felt. And I feel that’s what NFTs did.”

Through connecting with other artists online — she highlights the community of artists on the Tezos blockchain where she mints all her work — she has the chance to have meaningful conversations about the art that she is passionate about and find new inspirations.

Such is the breadth of the NFT community that Tan-Tan has found a tight core of anime lovers within it, emphasised by the style’s popularity in 1-of-1 artworks and generative avatar collections alike. Whatever the estimation of anime in the fine art world, its impact on global culture is undeniable, particularly the internet culture that is so inexorably intertwined with the NFT space. 

Tan-Tan’s perspective on art is wider and more inclusive — less pretentious, even — than the line taken by many attached to the institutionalised norms of the traditional fine art world. And it's certainly one that will align with many others in the NFT art space.

“I don't consider my Renaissance influences better than my manga or anime influences. They rank the same for me because they have enriched my life a lot, on the same level. So I feel it's not really a competition. Every person has their own journey and experiences and things that relate to them.”

It reflects the reality that, more often than not, artists of all different mediums and styles have found ways to connect with each other and find audiences — both large and niche — in web3. As will resonate with countless artists who create NFTs, Tan-Tan has often heard the opinions that digital art isn’t “real art”. It was her art teacher who first tried to impose that restriction, but needless to say, Tan-Tan’s view is completely different. It is representative of the broader movement, buttressed by the resilience of the NFT art market, for digital art to receive the recognition it deserves.

It is a change several decades in the making, and digital art’s fight for status is far from over. But with time, the new artistic freedoms that artists like Tan-Tan can now explore, thanks to web3, could one day be the norm for digital artists. Fortunately, the weight of change does not fall on any one person. As long as artists and collectors in the NFT space continue to push for this new paradigm, the art world will continue to change; more and more artists will come into the space, and as they succeed, collectors will have to follow.

“No one needs to change the world, they just need to maybe change a bit of themselves and how they see the world. And maybe that might be a cause for a more integrated society.”

“No one needs to change the world, they just need to maybe change a bit of themselves and how they see the world.”

— Tan-Tan

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Ola Kalejaye
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Ola is a US–based writer and digital nomad. He loves thinking, learning, and writing about all things web3, particularly its impact on major creative industries like film and art.