Leah Ibrahim Sams possesses a special power — empathy. Through this superpower, she has empowered more than 2,600 collectors to embrace their diverse traits, cultures and heritages in her 15 Power of Women (PoW) NFT collections.
Unfortunately, observations and personal experiences taught the British-Malaysian illustrator how scarce proper representation really is in our world. It’s a wrong Ibrahim Sams committed to right through her artwork. She wants others to see themselves in art and, most importantly, find power in that.
The vision for Power of Women started before Ibrahim Sams knew what a non-fungible token (NFT) was. One day, she was a set costume designer splattered in paint, and the next, the pandemic struck, ending her career with a single sucker punch in March 2020.
“I lost my work overnight,” Ibrahim Sams shares. The entire theatre industry in London, where she lives, shut down. Like many artists in her circle, she grappled with a sudden loss of identity, and she had to find her way to others for ways to stay creative during the madness of the lockdown.
The artist had already dabbled in digital illustration, primarily as a form of personal enjoyment, back in 2019. But it was during the lockdown that she discovered the profound impact it had on her mental well-being. Her previous work in the theater often involved sketching to bring others' ideas to life, leaving her feeling disconnected from her own creative expression. In fact, Ibrahim Sams shares on her website that her work as a set designer had, at times, induced anxiety. However, with her set designer career now behind her, digital illustration offered something new — a sense of ownership and empowerment over her creative process.
As she explored this newfound creative outlet, an event occurred that would profoundly influence her artistry. The murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 ignited global conversations about discrimination, unconscious biases and racial injustice. In the U.K., Ibrahim Sams engaged in many of these conversations with her friends. Moreover, being of mixed heritage, with a British white father and a Malaysian mother, Ibrahim Sams confronted her own questions surrounding identity and representation.
“The Black Lives Matter movement spread waves across from America to the U.K.," she explains. "Especially for me, having grown up in Malaysia in a melting pot of so many different cultures and ethnicities, it really hit home. I think a lot of us re-looked at our lives and we thought, 'Are we doing our best? Are we doing better?'”
Questions about what she could do led Ibrahim Sams to a significant revelation. The illustrator found a way to infuse diversity into her work, drawing from her background in costume design. Once she realized her potential to contribute to a global conversation, her art took on a deeper purpose. Ibrahim Sams began creating illustrations of women adorned in elegant garments, each design paying tribute to the rich tapestry of diverse cultures. She sold on her Etsy store until she discovered NFTs.
"I think a lot of us re-looked at our lives and we thought, 'Are we doing our best? Are we doing better?'”
The idea of launching an NFT collection was actually introduced to the artist by her husband’s colleagues, who talked regularly about cryptocurrency. At some point, he showed them his wife’s portraits and they loved them, noting they would buy them in the form of an NFT if such an option was available. According to Ibrahim Sams, the couple nodded, then asked what an NFT was.
Without hesitation, the couple picked about 50 illustrations that Ibrahim Sams had drawn during the pandemic to create the first collection. Together, they felt determined to promote the collection diligently. Ibrahim Sams explained that they didn't have a specific plan; instead, they kept an open mind and followed where the project led. That is how PoW was born in August of 2021.
Inspired by her Malaysian childhood, the couple launched League of Extraordinary Women on OpenSea during the NFT boom in September 2021. The collection sold 39 out of 50 artworks, celebrating cultural diversity and empowering women. Considering the scarcity of female-led collections, the collection stood out like a splash of colors on a blank canvas. Furthermore, only 4% of women were collecting NFTs, noted Ibrahim Sams. As a crypto and digital token novice, she found this reality jarring. Yet, it also sparked in her a determination to succeed against all odds in representing diversity to the homogeneous crypto landscape.
"I think coming into the NFT space when you see so few women represented, so few diverse people represented, so few minorities represented, and seeing these people having to hustle a hundred times harder just to achieve the same thing that everyone else was achieving, you suddenly go, 'Actually, there's so much work to be done,'" she said.
Compelled by her sense of duty, Ibrahim Sams rejected familiar racial descriptors. She describes a desire to replace labels like "Black woman" and "Asian woman" with what she felt were more celebratory terms like coffee, caramel, or sun-kissed. “I wanted people to say, ‘I have caramel skin.’ ‘I have olive skin’, or ‘I’m coffee-colored.’ I wanted it all to be positive. It was tricky because there’s so much history and baggage tied to our cultures and heritage.” Ibrahim Sams reveals.
She researched traditional clothing from her native Malaysia but also looked up traditional garments from other cultures such as African head wraps, and Islamic hijabs. Illustrating power through women’s clothing goes beyond the typical power suit women wear to the office.
Ibrahim Sams adds, “This how I want to see myself because I want to be a badass woman, and I just hope that when people look at it, they go, ‘Do you know what? Maybe that could be me.’"
The illustrator’s decision made her creative process longer, but the hard work paid off. Ibrahim Sams received countless messages from people expressing gratitude for seeing themselves or loved ones reflected in her art. Then she realized the extent of her impact: What she did initially for personal empowerment ended up inspiring others to find their voice and power.
Cultural diversity is challenging to illustrate, but representing sexual orientation and gender fluidity adds another layer of complexity. Ibrahim Sams embraced this kind of representation as part of her mission. For Ibrahim Sams, it goes back to her ability to empathetically see the personhood of an individual first.
In the Women of the Metaverse collection, Bianka depicts a queer household with two mothers who are expecting a daughter together. The artwork's description narrates Bianka's pride in becoming a role model and speaks to the equal pride in building a family founded on love, respect, and kindness, not one determined by stereotypes.
The Women of the Metaverse collection also includes artworks such as Avery portraying a trans woman and Dakota rendering non-binary individuals. Ibrahim Sams asks, “Who is to say that just because you dress femininely that maybe not all of you is feminine? What is femininity and what is masculinity?"
To the artist, her work portrays scenes in which people dress and express themselves however they want, including choices like body hair and accessories, and being able to embody gender identity in the most authentic way.
"Why not?" asks Ibrahim Sams.
And that’s PoW’s mission — to amplify the voice of society's underdogs, for them to finally be able to say “I see me, and I look beautiful.” That’s the power of representation in art.
Representing diversity faithfully requires more time invested in research, but it became worthwhile for the co-founder when a major opportunity came knocking.
In the beginning of 2023, a representative from Manchester’s football club, Man City, contacted Ibrahim Sams with a proposal. The club was seeking collaboration with a female artist for an NFT collection as part of their International Women’s Day campaign. They made the illustrator an offer, and the rest is history.
The I AM EMPOWERED NFT collection dropped on March 8, 2023, and quickly sold out. It features five digital artworks embodying affirmations of courage, pride, fearlessness, resilience and power. These affirmations send a powerful message to inspire the next generation of girls to pursue their dreams fearlessly. Released as a limited edition for International Women's Day 2023, proceeds are shared equally between Power of Women and Manchester City's official charity, City in the Community. Man City proudly displayed Ibrahim Sams’ artwork in their offices and stadium.
“We created something special. [Man City] didn’t fully realize the positive impact we could have, especially in terms of female representation in sport," Ibrahim Sams recalls.
Entrepreneurs must maintain momentum under all conditions, as success is a dynamic process. Following this philosophy, PoW has exciting projects planned. The pair is exploring the creation of a dynamic NFT collection. The illustrator also began showcasing her artwork created for PoW at various local fairs, and a digital Power fashion line that is about to launch exclusively on Metropolis World's upcoming platform, Persona Parlor. VESP3R, PoW's recent collection is available for sale on Virtualness, a mobile-first Web3 platform for creators, and a new NFT collection called ‘Heritage’ has been added to the list of PoW collections. The future looks promising.
Ibrahim Sams embodies the underdog’s triumph that many aspire to accomplish. In August 2021, the illustrator and her husband ventured into creating an NFT collection from her artwork. Two years later, Ibrahim Sams has achieved so much through “Power of Women”. They collaborated with Man City FC on a major collection featuring PUMA’s Pankhurst kit and a fashion line in development. There are more wins to add to the list. Ibrahim Sams also won a Diversity Award at NFT NYC 2023 and has artwork that has been exhibited at the Adidas flagship store in London. Oh! One of her collectors includes the Australian singer-songwriter SIA. The sky’s the limit, and PoW shows no sign of stopping. Ibrahim Sams lost her career to the pandemic but found her calling by drawing women in beautiful clothes, making herself happy, and representing communities worldwide.
Émilie Boivin is a crypto and AI enthusiast who covers immersive technologies, ethics, financial innovation and the Metaverse. Connect with her on Twitter.
This article and all the information in it does not constitute financial advice. If you don’t want to invest money or time in Web3, you don’t have to. As always: Do your own research.