FIEND The 3D artist living, breathing and reinterpreting internet culture

Cover Image - FIEND
WordsJyni Ong

Robotics and cyberpunk clash with Sanrio cute culture and 3D Blender-made jewelry art. Welcome to the hard and fast world of Abel Emmanuel, aka FIEND. Having lived, breathed and reinterpreted internet culture since Tumblr’s 00s heyday, Abel can trace the digital zeitgeist like the back of his hand. Here, he tells writer Jyni Ong about the personal impact the online digital art community has had on him creatively and emotionally.

Abel is seeking donations to support his education and to help him escape an abusive household. You can donate at this link.

For every critic who pins the rise of young people’s mental health issues on internet culture, conversely, there are those who have digital culture to thank for their sense of identity, purpose and creative point of view. FIEND, aka Abel Emmanuel, is one of the latter. A self-taught 3D artist, designer, animator and occasional jewelry designer, he’s known for his shiny, pink, cyberpunk-inspired futurisms. “The online community is the only reason my art is successful,” he says. “I’ve had social anxiety my entire life. I don’t mingle well with people, I don’t like putting myself out there.” Slowly but surely, though, the online digital art community has provided FIEND with the support, confidence and space to grow as an artist.

Born, raised and currently based in South Africa where he studies Computer Science, FIEND remembers a childhood immersed in building and modeling. He recalls after-school sessions sketching “Ben 10” and playing with bootleg Lego on the beach. As a teenager, he took to fandom culture—“Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” specifically—which led him to Tumblr, where he discovered an online utopia of self-taught artists experimenting with early versions of Photoshop and front-end web development. It inspired FIEND to dabble in digital art himself, a medium to realize fantasies inspired by cyberpunk-esque shows emanating Neon Genesis Evangelion (the 90s TV series) and mecha anime (anime that features robots in battle.)

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FIEND became fascinated by the intersection of robotics and digital art, a flexible concept that continues to show up in his work today. Seen in the playful balance between metallic 3D head jewelry which could also be mistaken for armor, or a witty visual comment combining pink Sanrio cuteness with goth culture.

He creates his digital artworks in long, non-stop working sessions, sitting by his computer for five to eight hours at a time, hyper-fixating on the task at hand. His ideas for artworks usually arrive spontaneously at around 9pm. He goes straight to his custom PC and starts with a basic modeling sphere on Blender, gradually chipping away at the digital sculptor’s block to eventually arrive at something more spiky and shiny. Over time he’s curated a selection of textures, shaders and assets that have become his go-to infrastructures to achieve his futuristic aesthetic.

As an astute cultural observer chronically online, FIEND has seen a myriad trends, hypes and cultural flexes wash across the digital art scene. Open-source learning has been key to the rapid evolution of 3D art both technically and philosophically. It’s encouraged a culture of creative sharing and communal nurturing, values which initially attracted FIEND to the scene. Over the years, with the digital community by his side, he’s refined his technique and sharpened his aesthetic viewpoint. The next step is to improve his illustration skills so he can move into concept art. “So I can actually make the thing I envision,” he explains. “I want to make people who look like me, more POC characters.” Next year, he’s attending grad school in the US where he hopes to develop this line of creative inquiry. 

Since starting his freelance design career in 2020, FIEND has learned an impressive array of skills, with a coveted body of work to boot, but it’s the community he has found that he holds most dear. “Being in these communities made me visible to the artists that I look up to. Two or three years later, they’re my really good friends. I can’t believe it. It’s amazing,” he says.

When asked about the importance of online community, the first thing that comes to mind for FIEND is acceptance. “As a transgender man, when I came out to the community I was accepted. If I did that in real life I don’t think I would have been as accepted.” When it comes to his work, the community “always pushes me to do better but has never brought me down. The communities that I joined, they were never arrogant, it was never about getting an advantage. We only ever loved art and design and wanted to be better as a community. I’ve connected with people from all over and been inspired by them and their stories.”