When Nour Hage first heard about non-fungible tokens during a conversation with friends, she was so intrigued she began researching them the very next day. Known as NFTs, the tokens are unique certificates used to authenticate the ownership of digital assets such as artworks, videos, music and even tweets.
Blockchain technology ensures that NFTs cannot be replicated, faked or stolen, and that changes of ownership and value are tracked as the tokens are traded online, mostly using the cryptocurrency platform Ethereum.
For Hage, a Lebanese fashion designer who has begun venturing into the world of fine art over the past two years, working mostly with textiles, the idea of minting her own NFTs held an unexpected allure.
“When I started reading about them earlier this year … it triggered something in me and I got obsessed with it for a while. It’s a bit of a breath of fresh air because it’s a new format,” she says. “It’s a new world, in a way.”
Hage already knew how to use digital art tools, relying on them to create many sketches and patterns for her clothing line. Beginning in womenswear in Beirut in 2013, before switching to menswear when she moved to London a few years later, she has made a name for herself as a sustainable fashion designer who creates contemporary, minimalist pieces inspired by the culture and history of the Middle East. Her interest in Arab history – and her love of textiles – has carried over into her work as an artist.
Hage made her first foray into the fine art world in 2019, when she was commissioned by the Arab British Centre and Dr Johnson’s House to create a piece for a group exhibition exploring the impact of Arabs and Muslims in Elizabethan England.
The result was Sultana Isabel, a dramatic sculptural ruff made from linen and silk, hand-dyed using turmeric and indigo. The installation included small vials of spices and pigments, referencing England’s historic trade alliances with Morocco and the Ottoman Empire.
“I was already thinking about going into textile art and I guess this was an opportunity that came at the right time. It allowed me to explore textile art within what I had already researched and what I’m already interested in, so it felt like a natural transition,” Hage says. “Whether it’s my design practice, my physical textile practice or my digital art practice, they’re all based on different branches of the same research.”
Her decision to begin working as an artist was driven mostly by a desire to put to use extensive historical and cultural research that didn’t find expression through her clothing, she explains.
“My whole art practice is based on Middle Eastern identity, specifically how women are like the essential beings that transmit culture within generations, whether that’s through food, clothing and textiles, or whether that’s through cultural practice."
Her first three NFTs were made using scraps of textiles from her studio, arranged to create colourful digital portraits set against hypnotic moving backdrops. She chose to capture three of the Arab world’s most powerful historic female figures: ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti; Dido, the founder and queen of Carthage, a Phoenician city-state located in modern Tunisia; and Zenobia, queen of the Palmyrene Empire, located in modern Syria.
Venturing into NFTs for the first time, she wasn’t sure what to expect, but Hage found the digital art world surprisingly welcoming.
“NFT artists support each other, especially women or artists of colour. That supportive network also appealed to me because it’s something that’s missing in the fashion world, where things are extremely competitive,” she says. “It just felt like I could do anything within that world and that was exciting.”
Another appealing aspect of NFTs is that they allow artists to retain a stake in their work by entitling them to a percentage of future sales.
“Basically the NFT is a contract – you’re building a contract on the blockchain,” Hage explains. “What’s great about that is it’s very beneficial for the artist. For instance, you can say that every time this NFT is resold, as a creator I get 10 per cent or 20 per cent of the sale.”
On the downside for a self-professed environmentalist, cryptocurrencies have a notoriously terrible carbon footprint.
“That’s a concern,” she admits, saying that Ether, the currency she uses, is “a bit less bad for the environment than Bitcoin, for instance".
“They’re working on it being even more environmentally friendly, so completely carbon-neutral,” she says. “I think they’ll be able to do the switch by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.”
Hage minted her first three NFTs in June. To her surprise, they were purchased within three days. By July, she had already minted a new NFT, a portrait of her grandmother based on a photograph from 1952. The piece was inspired by reflections on how identity is rooted in the passing of memories from generation to generation.
"How who we are is passed on to us and how we take that knowledge with us as we move through the world,” she wrote on Instagram, where she shares her work.
In the meantime, Hage has embarked on another step into the art world – a prestigious fellowship at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
“They asked me to look into their Middle Eastern collection and select textile pieces and jewellery pieces to research. I’ll get to talk to curators about these objects and, at the end of it, I’ll put together a proposal for a textile art piece. If they approve it, they’ll acquire it as well,” she says.
The first artist to participate in a new fellowship in The Jameel Gallery at the museum, which house the Islamic and Middle Eastern collections, Hage will spend eight months working with curator Rachel Dedman, exploring a collection that includes more than 19,000 items from the Middle East and North Africa, dating from the 7th to the 20th century.
As enamoured as she is with the art world, Hage also plans to continue her work as a fashion designer.
“Part of my brain only thinks in terms of design and part of my brain only thinks as an artist, so I constantly need that balance in my life,” she explains.
Whatever her future holds, fabric seems destined to be a part of it.
“I’m obsessed with textiles – with textures, with touch, with different nuances in colour,” she says. “I don’t want to say I will never work with anything besides textiles [but] for the time being, I don’t see myself using any other medium.”
Artist in Focus is our series that shines a spotlight on young artists in the region