Vicious, tenacious, defiant, versatile ... that's how visual artist Aya Tarek has been described along the winding path that has taken her career from politically driven street art in her home city of Alexandria to launching Egypt’s first art exhibition curated for an NFT marketplace this week.
Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, are proof of ownership over a digital artwork. The ownership is proven through a secure blockchain mechanism that means that while others can view it and circulate screenshots of it, the original artwork is owned solely by the purchaser.
Who is Aya Tarek?
Although the Egyptian artist is from a traditional fine arts background that involved her spending hours on end perfecting brush strokes and colour-mixing, Tarek’s versatility – rooted in a strong urge to remain relevant – emerged early in her career. And in the 13 years since she began to capture her country’s attention, she has gone from painting – first on canvas, then murals – to digital art, 3D-motion graphics, feature films and now, NFTs.
Though she was catapulted into the national spotlight because of her political street art produced on the sidelines of the 2011 popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak as Egypt's president, Tarek’s artistic journey began a few years before that. Many Alexandrians were familiar with her graffiti as far back as 2008.
She also featured in Microphone, a 2011 political film that depicted the lives of artists and intellectuals in Egypt and the challenges they faced under Mubarak.
In the early 2010s, Tarek became fascinated with street art because of the increased visibility it offered. She wanted her work to be seen and appraised by more people than a gallery could accommodate.
Her desire for less control over the space where art is allowed to exist was one of the main reasons Tarek became intrigued by NFTs.
“When I first heard about NFTs, I didn’t really understand what they were. Like many people today. I thought, ‘How could you sell a piece of digital art exactly?’ I had compiled a large collection of digital artwork that I didn’t know what to do with,” she says.
Tarek explains that NFTs made digital art a saleable commodity, which in turn shone a spotlight on artists who work exclusively with digital media.
That is what led to Token, an exhibition of Tarek's latest work. The show was produced by the B'sarya For Arts in Alexandria, which organised the venues as well as facilitated the creation of the NFTs.
A show only for an NFT market
In a dimly lit art space in the heart of Downtown Cairo, Tarek, through a partnership with a new NFT marketplace called NFTY Arabia, which was founded in the UAE, Token has opened to the public. Curated by Marwa Benhalim and running until December 22, it comprises a mix of physical paintings and digitally rendered pieces that will become the first items sold on NFTY Arabia.
“The bulk of the exhibition deals with consumerism and capitalist tendencies. It revolves around our need to consume things and how that feeds into the way we perceive and interact with everything,” says Benhalim.
In one corner of the gallery, one painting, T-bone depicts a delicious-looking steak, which simultaneously makes the viewer's mouth water and their stomach tighten with discomfort upon seeing streaks of red paint dripping off it. In another piece, a digitally constructed man seizes continuously outside a luxury villa.
Tarek delivers her intention with expert precision through the vibrant collection.
“NFTs are a great answer to a gap in the art market. Many artists today don’t work with analogue media at all, so all their art is made through digital means. The traditional set-up didn’t make room for these kinds of works,” she explains.
Her sentiments were echoed by Timmy Mowafi, co-founder of NFTY Arabia.
“I think it’s time that Mena region artists were given the space to sell their work and get the recognition they deserve. If new tech like NFTs did one thing of value, it was to empower a lot of people who might have been sidelined or considered misfits in the past,” Mowafi tells The National.
“When we sat down and she [Tarek] relayed her vision to me, I realised that there were no NFTs out there that showcased modern-day street culture in Egypt, that’s really special.
“We had seen NFTs of ancient Egyptian iconography but very few people were focusing on the country’s more modern subcultures.”
Unlike other NFT marketplaces, which allow anyone to mint an artwork and upload it for sale, NFTY Arabia retains curatorial rights over their platform. Mowafi says that this was because he wanted to implement a set of quality standards on the art sold by his marketplace.
The platform is set to showcase the work of 50 of the region’s top artists in February, when it launches fully.
Token is open at Downtown Cairo’s Kodak Passageway until December 22