eL Seed on the Power of Graffiti Art, Spreading messages of Peace, Unity, Humanity and Tolerance through Art and Arabic Calligraphy
Through the tool of graffiti art and Arabic calligraphy, eL Seed is spreading the message of peace and unity. Different parts of the world and a variety of communities are brought to the forefront with the power of art, all whilst breaking down perceptions we may have of each other. By sharing and making his visuals for and with communities, the meaning of art takes on a significant emphasis showcasing perspectives and readdressing stereotypes. eL Seed’s art builds bridges, it is one of unification with a quest to expose the common traits humanity has with each other. In 2017, eL Seed won the UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture and was named in 2016 a Global Thinker by Foreign Policy for his project ‘Perception’ in Cairo. His art has been on display in exhibitions and in public places such as on the façade of L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, at LAZinc art gallery in London, in the favelas of Rio di Janeiro, on the DMZ in between North and South Korea and in the heart of Cairo’s garbage collectors neighbourhood amongst many other places. The evolution of the history of graffiti art and its growing popularity whether in what we term as the “West” or “East”, means public spaces reflecting societal messages through art can be reached by many more people. Democratising art is an important factor for eL Seed, he never signs his work, creating them for the people of the area he paints in. This essence of sharing initiated our conversation to start with the beginning of his art journey…
What first drew you to art and to graffiti art?
I have been painting since I was a child, so art in my life was a natural evolution from my childhood. Graffiti art came later on during my teenage years in France. Lady Pink has talked of hip hop and graffiti art as being two separate elements for her, but that combination for me was the way graffiti art entered my life. They came as a package and it was the only language I would understand, that made me feel good and that I could be a part of.
Art evolves and I try to break boundaries, it’s clear that my artistic background is Arabic calligraphy but perhaps tomorrow I won’t be doing that, perhaps I will be painting darts on the wall, it’s just an evolution of things and of art.
What are your influences? The Arabic language and or with other cultural exposures?
The way I look at Arabic script is totally different from someone who was raised into it. I was born in France and my interests come from both the graffiti scene and from traditional calligraphy, which was the first thing I looked at. On a whole my influences are a mix of many things. It’s like identity, I’m not just from one entity, so it’s an amalgamation of a lot of influences and sometimes from elements that I may not realise I am being influenced by.
eL Seed painted in 2012 the minaret of Jara Mosque in his hometown of Gabes, in the south of Tunisia
'Lost Walls' from eL Seed's road trip around Tunisia during the summer 2013, when he set out on a month long personal journey across his mother country painting 24 walls in total, spanning the entire country and documented it in his first book ‘Lost Walls’.
Literature and poetry are also big influences in your art?
I look into poetry and literature depending on the places I travel to. Sometimes a book that I am reading will give me an idea for the next project, other times it’s a conversation with someone which can lead to a new challenge. As an artist I don’t find my inspiration from one thing or another, because I think there’s a global influence in each project, there’s a global discussion with the many things that come from the many places and people I’ve encountered or the books that i’ve red.
Are your artworks first about an emotion?
Actually yes it’s an emotion, it’s a need sometimes. As artists, we create art in the public sphere for the people. However that very first feeling or emotion to do so, is for us to express ourselves.
Some of my biggest projects have sometimes been a need to get out of my comfort zone. At the same time and mainly the emotion felt is about wanting to highlight people and communities as well convey issues we may be facing in the world. So even if art is a self challenge or expression, there are several layers that come in to it, adding to that very first need to express oneself.
What are your thoughts on the power of art and graffiti art?
I think art is one of the most powerful tools that can bring people together and that can reunite people and culture. I’ve noticed that in my own case, Arabic calligraphy is what has allowed me to reconcile with my own culture which is Arabic and French. I use art as a pretext for the human experience. Everybody is open to art, no matter where they come from. When people move towards art, they are touched by it, it’s a universal language that does not need translation or explanation because most people can feel something towards a visual. That’s what I’ve experienced myself, many adventures have allowed me to get to places and meet people from different communities that could not have happened without art, nor could I have been able to spread so freely the messages of humanity, unity and peace without the tool of art that can reach people across continents.
Art by eL Seed in Algiers
You’ve mentioned your own personal artistic evolvement by going into sculptural work. How do you think graffiti art has evolved? From the streets to the galleries, graffiti art's popularity is expanding, some think it has changed since its very beginning but it also could be said that its acclaim has enhanced its attributes and enabled graffiti art to be seen by those that maybe hadn’t, as on par with other art forms
I think each art space completes the other. When you work on the street or when you work in a studio for a gallery show it is the same artist that does the work, it’s just a different process and a different approach. It’s also a different audience but it’s the same guy that’s behind the art. So the energy that is put into a canvas or a small sculpture is exactly the same energy that is put into a big mural in the public sphere. So I don’t think there is a clash between both worlds and this is part of the myth that some people want to feed, stating to artists that if you started in the streets you need to be or stay there. But it shouldn’t matter you can be wherever you wish to be as an artist, in the streets, in a gallery or in the best museum of the world. Some people want to place rules when there is no need for there to be any.
Calligraphy and graffiti has become calligraffiti
In the early 1980s, Jeffrey Deitch who is a curator and collector, curated a show at the Leila Heller Gallery called Calligraffiti. He had displayed together both graffiti art from New York and Iranian calligraphy. At that time Deitch had said that he did not know when, maybe in decades, but that these two practices will merge together. Though the word calligraffiti came in the late 1970s, from that exhibition, people started using the word calligraffiti much more frequently. I feel kind of disconnected from this terminology, because it feels now as though it is being used for anything anyone does.
You are first an artist
Yes that's it.
In 2013 eL Seed started a residency at Tashkeel studio in Dubai. His final show was titled Declaration and the lettering was formed in three-dimensional shapes, protruding from the walls and curving around the corners. The words were taken from a poem by the Syrian poet Nazir Qabbani, who wrote to his wife to tell her that no matter how much she aged, she would always be beautiful to him. In 2018, when Dubai Opera commissioned eL Seed for a sculpture, he wanted to pay tribute to Declaration as a way of declaring his love for the city of Dubai .
From eL Seed's solo show Tabula Rasa at LAZinc in London. "For this exhibition, I have developed on my process, stripping down the works, in an effort to access my own ‘tabula rasa’. The concept of ‘tabula rasa’, pioneered by 17th Century philosopher, John Locke, argues that at birth the human mind is a complete, but receptive blank slate, upon which experience imprints knowledge. In relation to my canvases, I have taken the idea of the tabula rasa as a starting point, with the aim to alter deep-seated preconceptions that are commonly held about the Arabic script and culture. In contrast to my usually polished and perfected canvases, the works at LAZinc will appear with an unfinished aesthetic. The surface calligraphy is ripped and torn to reveal phrases and imagery below, which materialise slowly and differently with each viewing." @elseed
Social media has helped art be seen, travelling across the wires and exposing it to the many. Beyond social media, how will technology start to impact street art and graffiti art? Do you think something like Tilt Brush where you can walk through an artwork or AI and new technologies will start to affect grafitti art?
One of the rooms at the British Library in the exhibition entitled Writing: Making Your Mark, is called the future of writing, it is interesting to think about the future of writing, as it may very well lead us back to it, to writing. I think that people will go back to writing, because we need a connection with our hands. I buy letter paper and write love letters to my wife and enjoy it.
Virtual reality is an appeal, something I feel and recognise. In fact, I did a campaign with Tilt Brush and Google and it’s a great tool to have and to paint with. Of course it’s a different sensation, as you don’t feel the material, there’s no texture like painting or writing on paper or on walls because you are in a virtual world. But both sensations that stem from real and virtual can sit next to each other and be engaging.
We are drawn to elements that connect us. I think there is a reconnection with things that we miss, and writing may be something that a lot of people miss, all alongside enjoying the tool of technology.
eL Seed painting at the British Library for the exhibition 'Writing: Making Your Mark' picture by Ouahidb
Can you tell us about your experience with your installation work "The Bridge" at the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, an artwork that is political, cultural and about peace-building
It was an amazing experience. It was a project initiated by the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art. When they asked me to produce a work that would reflect unity and mutual respect, I was honoured that the Korean people were asking me, an Arab-French artist to create an art piece in Arabic calligraphy for a celebration and for the call of reunification between North and South Korea.
This project was initiated before the two presidents met. It was just about the South Koreans wanting to showcase that at some point they wanted to be reunited with North Korea. It was really interesting meeting people and hearing the voice of the people from South Korea, how they see the separation. A 90 year old woman told me that she was married to a man who came from a town in what is now known as North Korea and that he couldn’t go back there to see his family. He had two daughters there with his previous wife that he has never seen. Not being able to go back, he redid his life with a new family in South Korea. She then relayed to me that from either side of the fence, people are from the same culture, they are the same people, they speak the same language but they have this fence that was placed for political reasons in 1953.
The experience and conversations we had were sad but at the same time it was eye opening because going there, made me realise how dehumanising we have been towards the North Koreans. I think it’s because when we think of North Korea, in our minds North Korea feels unknown to us. But when I did this project and when we actually reached North Korea, although we were not allowed to install the sister piece there which would have shaped into the other side of the art piece that’s in South Korea, bridging both art pieces into one to showcase unification, I realised that actually people are people, our perception of the country may be one thing, but the people should be another, they have dreams, they have a life, they have hope and they cry, smile and laugh, but we only have this one image fed to us of people stuck in a house and never smiling, as if they are almost robots. But that is our interpretation and though yes there are issues, I think it was eye opening to recognise that feelings of people are the same all over the world, in any part of it, so the experience of art can make us switch perceptions.
'Bridge" by eL Seed "Bridges are never built from one side; their very nature needs a step forward from both sides, so by extending the sculpture to the mid-point, eL Seed was intending to make a gesture of solidarity. However, due to security reasons, permission for this initial idea was not allowed, so instead, eL Seed proposed a horizontal laser-cut aluminium art piece installed on the fence of the DMZ. The art piece spells out the words of Kim Sowol, a poet from North Korea who died before the country became divided."
"You may remember, unable to forget:
yet live a lifetime, remember or forget,
For you will have a day when you will come to forget.
You may remember, unable to forget:
Let your years flow by, remember or forget,
For once in a while, you will forget.
On the other hand it may be:
'How could you forget
What you can never forget?"⠀
So art can really enter and pierce politics, piercing through everything and showing humanity?
It gives us a different narrative, it brings humanity to the forefront. When I returned from Cairo I felt really good because that experience enhanced my belief in humanity. Most people I encountered there are in the hardest condition of work and life, their work is really difficult but they were the most amazing and welcoming people I have ever met in my life.
The message you wrote in Cairo was really important, furthermore shinning a light on a minority group in Egypt. How difficult is the process of creating something like your artwork “Perception”?
The most difficult part is finding the right message. When you have the right message it is easier for people to feel connected to what you do. Then of course there is the technical part which is difficult but once you are present and meeting people then that difficulty seizes. The response is positive because there is a connection and when the communities feel like you took them into consideration, that’s what’s really important for me, making sure that we do not colonise the space but that we are coming to paint for the people, and when is is done like that, people want to preserve the work.
"Perception" by eL Seed "in the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. To bring light on this community, with his team and the help of the local community, eL Seed created an anamorphic piece that covers almost 50 buildings only visible from a certain point of the Moqattam Mountain. The piece of art uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century, that said:
‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.’ "
Wether you are in Algeria or Tunisia or Korea or any other place you’ve been to, you’ve encountered people that have actually been happy that you are there and painting in their area and have engaged with your artworks, something like that, we don’t really hear about when talking about the start of the New York graffiti art scene or the start of graffiti in general
People are really welcoming, that’s what I have found. I’ve seen a big gap between what I hear about the very start of graffiti, to when I think about all the places I’ve been to and the people I’ve encountered around the world. I think that’s why I say the power of art allows us to go to places that without it we wouldn’t be able to enter and I find that amazing and important for us to all to connect.
I saw the piece in Lebanon and I had read that you had developed a lovely relationship with Umm Simon, the owner of the building
Yes I’m still in touch with her, I need to call her it's her Birthday
"It was my first time in Beirut and I felt at home. For a few days, I spent my time on this street in Ashrafieh where I met Umm Simon, the owner of the building. She is a generous, caring and strong Lebanese woman from Armenian origins. Sitting in her little tailor shop, she invited me everyday to sit down for a coffee. We talked about life, love and bollywood movies. She was so happy to know that I was writing this quote from Amin Rihani:
"My wish is to live without disliking anyone,
To love without being jealous of anyone,
To rise without being elevated over anyone, and
To advance without stepping on anyone or becoming envious of those above me." "
There now seems to be a backlash in the world to globalisation and much turmoil. Graffiti art as it’s in the public sphere, in communal places as well as an expressive art form, is a tool that could puncture through any backlash message, do you think art can help pierce through this turmoil in the world that we are going through and really connect us?
Definitely. When I am in Korea and I am painting an art piece in Arabic, that pierces through the myth that we cannot connect. When I was in the Favelas of Brazil, there was a woman who was looking at what I was painting and asked me to come to her house to show me something. So I went and she showed me a piece of paper she had found on a film set she used to work for and had kept it for the last 20 years but didn’t know what it was. She expressed to me that the writing looked exactly like what I was painting and asked if I knew what it was. I explained to her that it was Arabic, the same language I was painting in and told her that it’s a prayer from the Quran to protect her. She was very happy, communicating to me that she felt that she’d been protected for the last 20 years. People are intrigued about what we do as artists. Most of the time they open their houses to you and are welcoming and accepting.
Is there anywhere you haven’t painted that you would like to do so?
There are many places where I would like to paint, but I’ll leave it to where life and the art takes me.
Artwork by eL Seed on rooftop of a building in the Vidigal Favella in Rio Brazil. A couple of days after painting the rooftop and having left Brazil, eL Seed discovered that the building was an art school.
This mural in West Philadelphia is titled Soul of the Black Bottom by eL Seed. "It comes from the neighbourhood’s history of demolition and displacement and quotes part of the semi-autobiographical text Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil by W.E.B. Du Bois. As a sociologist, Du Bois wrote the first sociological study on African American community in Philadelphia and as an author, he addressed civil and political rights through both fiction and non-fiction. This work particularly addresses issues of segregation and racial inequality in the United States after the abolition of slavery. Du Bois was an activist who wanted equal rights for his community and it was important for me to use his words because I too consider myself an activist. In every place I paint, I search for the words most pertinent to those around them. No matter if the Arabic text can be understood by those who see it or not, it is still important for me that those who take the time to discover my meaning, find something valuable and meaningful. I also believe that art can bring people together and that art can unify societies, communities and even nations. For the people in Philadelphia, I wanted them to remember these words, written almost 100 years ago in 1920, yet timelessly relevant.
“I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.” – excerpt from Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veilpublished in 1920 "
eL Seed artwork on Pont Des Arts in Paris
eL Seed artwork in Dubai
eL Seed uses Arabic calligraphy and a distinctive style to spread messages of peace, unity and to underline the commonalities of human existence. Born in 1981 in Paris to Tunisian parents, he was disconnected from his Arabic roots, speaking only the Tunisian dialect of the language at home. In his teenage years in a kind of quest for his identity, he began to delve into his own heritage and learned to read and write standard Arabic.It was during this journey that he began to develop his artistic style of calligraphy, which would later bring him worldwide acclaim. He found that Arabic calligraphy was a way of building a link between his equally important French and Tunisian backgrounds and as he matured, eL Seed began to use that same calligraphy as a tool to build bridges all over the world, underlining his key principals of love, respect and tolerance. His work has been shown in exhibitions and in public places all over the world including on the façade of L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, at LAZinc art gallery in London, in the favelas of Rio di Janeiro, on the DMZ in between North and South Korea, in the slums of Cape Town and in the heart of Cairo’s garbage collectors neighbourhood. In 2017, he won the UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. He was named a Global Thinker in 2016 by Foreign Policy for his project ‘Perception’ in Cairo. In 2013, he collaborated with Louis Vuitton on their famous ‘Foulard d’Artiste’. His book Perception has been shortlisted for a D&AD (Design And Art Direction) award and his book Lost Walls provides a unique and rare insight into his world and the Tunisian people.
Pictures © of eL Seed @elseed