When I heard that eL Seed was participating in the Art101 series organized by Alserkal Avenue, aiming to introduce people to the behind-the-scenes processes of art, I was very excited to meet this young artist who has shot to international fame. I was hesitant at first, because these events do not usually have a big draw. Oh how wrong I was.
The cafe of Nadi Al Qouz was brimming, and the interest in eL Seed was obvious. Question upon question came from the audience, and people later lined up to have him draw their names in Arabic calligraphy, whether on their phones, their notebooks, or even their hands.
He complied without complaint, even inviting them to his personal studio at Alserkal Avenue, despite being in a hurry for the meeting he had promised me, while his wife was also waiting to whisk him off, lest he miss his next flight.
Having earned a reputation as a calligraffiti artist, eL Seed nonetheless identifies as simply a contemporary artist. His pseudonym was inspired by the play Le Cid by French playwright Pierre Corneille, which he watched at the age of sixteen.
Born in Paris in 1981 with Tunisian origins, this duality in identity was reflected in his work, he says, even though he only learned the Arabic language and art later on in life.
He tells us that he never felt French for a day, nor did he feel Tunisian when he visited during the summer holidays.
At one point, he decided to learn to read and write in Arabic, and later discovered Arabic calligraphy, which he began to incorporate into his art, albeit while deviating from its rules.
He believes that Arabic calligraphy has universal appeal, even if people do not necessarily understand what it says, as he believes that it communicates on a spiritual level rather than a visual one, and therefore does not require translation. His work is appreciated on a general level at first, before people try to delve deeper and understand the message behind it.
Art has long been an interest of eL Seed’s, having worked under the tutelage of Hassan Al-Masoud and Naja Al-Mahdawi, but in 2010, it became a full-time job when he decided to quit work as a consultant to dedicate himself to his art.
He says the process of becoming a professional was gradual, noting that he worked several types of jobs as he moved from country to country; starting in Paris then moving to Montreal, followed by New York, then Doha, and finally Dubai. His professional experience ranges from organizing children’s birthday parties at McDonald’s to working as a salesperson in FootLocker and a bellboy at a hotel.
“All these jobs allowed me to travel across the world and helped me later on in my career path. For example, working in logistics helped me better organize my art projects,” he adds.
Around the World
Through traveling, he took his art to different corners of the world. He returned to Tunisia, where he published a book titled Les Murs Perdus (Lost Walls), which retraces his artistic journey over a month in which he painted twenty-four calligraffiti murals in seventeen Tunisian towns and cities. He had a dual cause; to shed a new light on his country of origin, and to rediscover it for himself.
In the Tunisian town of Gabès, he painted a Quranic verse on tolerance and coexistence on the minaret of Jarah Mosque. In Paris, he left his mark on the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Poet des Arts.
His imprint can also be found on buildings in Ontario, New York, Chicago, and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Doha, where he designed fifty-two murals on Salwa Road. His work is also featured in Dubai, where he is currently based, and where he completed a residency at Tashkeel.
Yet, the project that is dearest to his heart is “Perception”; a project in which he painted the facades of buildings in Cairo’s impoverished Manshiyet Nasr district, where city’s garbage collectors live amid piles of garbage, earning it the colloquial name of “Garbage City”.
“This was the most artistic project, because the art became a pretext to make use of the humanistic experience,” he says. It took a year of preparation and three weeks of execution to complete the project, which he undertook as a personal initiative.
eL Seed transformed the facades of fifty different buildings in such a way that, seen from a distance, they read “Those who wish to see the sunlight clearly must first wipe their eyes”—a Coptic adage dating back to the third century (CE), attributed to the Coptic Pope at the time, Athanasius of Alexandria.
The selection of the quote was not arbitrary, as it reflected the message that eL Seed wished to put across to the world on changing one’s perspective. “The work of art is a visual interpretation of the full message. If you wish to see the full message, you have to stand at the correct angle. At times, we judge a community or a group of people, but if we were to change our perspective, we would abandon our preconceptions, and our view of reality might completely change,” he explains.
He further explains that projects of a social bent have a certain advantage in that they often force the artist into trials that weren’t previously considered, resulting in a unique experience with the people. For example, in Cairo, he says that the people were extremely welcoming and helpful, inviting them into their homes and serving him with tea. Additionally, the work was undertaken in exceptional circumstances, and had to be completed relatively fast, as the area is inhabited by numerous types of animals that were liable to attack at any time.
Thus, each project has its unique characteristics and message. eL Seed refused to speak of his future projects, saying, “I’ll never say a word,” yet it has clear that, for now, he has set down his anchor in Dubai. Although many question his decision to live there, he responds, “In Dubai, you’re part of a different wave. You can focus on the image of Dubai that centers around the endless mega-projects, but on the other hand, there is a growing artistic community, and increasing interest in the arts, and it’s beautiful being part of this moment.”
He closes with one piece of advice: “Choose art because you love it, nor because you want to be famous on social media. Make sure to express yourself well, and to have a lot of patience.”