Wonderwalls: French-Tunisian El Seed’s art with heart

The acclaimed ‘calligraffiti’ artist discusses his latest project, inspired by the work of Mahmoud Darwish. (Getty)
Updated 01 November 2019

Wonderwalls: French-Tunisian El Seed’s art with heart

DUBAI: The French-Tunisian street artist El Seed is sitting comfortably in his studio in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. It’s a funky, cavernous space peppered with both finished and unfinished artworks. All are characterized by elaborate calligraphic compositions. All are distinctively his.

“There are 14 types of script that you can define, but I didn’t know there were rules,” he says. “So when I started doing calligraphy I was copying classical calligraphy and just extending the letters. Without noticing it, I was developing my own style.”

El Seed’s work is defined as much by the use of quotes and poetry as it is by his use of calligraphy. In Cairo, he famously spread the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria — a third-century Coptic bishop — across 50 buildings in the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr. In Tunisia, he painted the minaret of Jara Mosque using a quote from the Qur’an. In Lyon, he turned to the words of French historian Fernand Braudel.

'A Moon Will Rise' by 81 Designs x El Seed. (Supplied)

“The point is to make sure that every time I do something it’s relevant to the people and the place,” he says. “You can’t go to a place and just put whatever you want. I think this is a kind of colonialism. You have to make sure that what you’re writing is relevant to the people.”

For his recent collaboration with UAE-based social enterprise 81 Designs, that meant utilizing the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Quotes from Darwish’s poetry were used to create seven murals in the Ain El-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, the most relevant of which, says El Seed, was the line “We suffer from an incurable disease called hope.”

It was his second collaboration with 81 Designs. The first time around, some of the artisans in the camp turned his work into embroidery to be sold. But this time around he wanted to do it differently, thanks in part to the London-based Moroccan pop artist, photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj. When El Seed saw that Hajjaj had visited Ain El-Hilweh as part of his own collaboration with 81 Designs, he realized he’d made a mistake.

Ladies of 81 Designs and El Seed painting a mural at Ain Al Hilweh. (Supplied)

“I went to the launch last year and saw that Hassan had gone there and I was like, ‘Man, you made me realize that what I did made no sense,’” he says. “I mean, we were happy, you know, because the goal was to sell the embroidery and give back the money to the people, but there was no story. We sent an email, they produced the embroidery, and then they sent it back to Dubai. Even at the talk I had nothing to say because I hadn’t been there. There were no names, no faces, no voices, no memories. That’s why I said to Nadine (Maalouf, co-founder of 81 Designs), ‘Look, I really want to re-do it, but in the right way.’”

So in June this year, El Seed traveled to Ain El-Hilweh and worked with a group of women to create the murals, each of which was then recreated using the traditional Palestinian embroidery technique of tatreez.

“You realize how privileged people with a passport are,” says El Seed of his experience. “Even a passport that needs all the visas on earth. You realize that we take our freedom for granted when you see 100,000 people living in two square kilometers and their dream is to have a job.

Ladies of 81 Designs and El Seed posing in front of their newly painted mural called 'Life'. (Supplied)

“But the point of this project was not to create pity. For me it was more about emotion — the power and the strength of these women and the pride that they have. They don’t live in an easy situation but they’re still trying to develop the business. They’re still trying to say, ‘We accept fate the way it is, and we’re not complaining.’ I never heard anybody complain. That teaches you a lot.”

El Seed has previously cited Darwish as an inspirational figure, one who had the courage to speak truth to power. In his own way the artist is treading a similar path. He uses his artwork, not necessarily as a tool of political expression, but to spread messages of peace and unity and to “underline the commonalities of human existence.”

For “Perception,” that anamorphic mural in Cairo’s Manshiyat Nasr (which took a year to plan and three weeks to paint), for example, he questioned the level of judgment directed at a certain community — the neighborhood is traditionally home to Cairo’s unofficial trash gatherers.

El Seed and a refugee child at Ain Al Hilweh. (Supplied)

For “The Bridge,” which was created in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, he called for reunification, unity and mutual respect. And on the minaret of Jara Mosque he made a universal call for peace, tolerance and acceptance.

“The fact that I was Tunisian and painting in Arabic brought so much light to me,” he says of Jara Mosque. “I was not looking for a mosque to paint on, I was looking for a wall in my hometown and it happened that the mosque, which was built in ’94, had never been painted. I used a verse from the Qur’an because it was a mosque, but the message was not a religious one. It was a call to the universe, it was a call to mankind. It was a call for unity at a time when there were so many clashes between the different communities in Tunisia.”

El Seed's work in Paris. (Getty)

You get a sense that El Seed shies away from overt confrontation, but that doesn’t mean his work lacks bite. “You know, when you paint in the streets you’re political,” he says. “Because, if it’s in a public space, you’re talking to the people.”

He adds: “It is more of the human connection that I like. When you go to a place and you realize, ‘Oh, these people are so cool, they’re welcoming me.’ Then you’re always looking for this feeling and you realize that with art you can go to places that nobody will go. I like that. In a different context you wouldn’t enter.

“The thing that I hate the most is when people say ‘Don’t go to this place’ and make generalities about people they don’t know. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in all the places.”

El Seed's work in Cairo. (Getty)

With a new book to be launched, a documentary about “Perception” ready to hit the festival circuit, an upcoming show in Miami, and his work with 81 Designs to be shown as part of Abu Dhabi Art Fair, El Seed’s far from idle. It’s all far removed from his early days as a street artist.

“I never believed I’d one day have my own studio and my own team,” he admits. “I haven’t even had the time to think about it, because you grow and then you’re two, then you’re three, and then you realize that each member of the team has a really specific task and a specific position that makes sure you can paint. It’s a blessing.”

Kurdish singer Nouri: ‘I want to be the greatest’

Her story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was born in a Syrian refugee camp after her parents fled Kurdistan in the early Nineties. (Supplied)
Updated 15 November 2019

Kurdish singer Nouri: ‘I want to be the greatest’

DUBLIN: Vivian Nouri is a woman on a mission. The Kurdish singer ­— more commonly known as NOURI — has made something of a splash in recent months. Her debut single “Where Do We Go From Here” reached number one in New Zealand in March this year (it currently has more than 1.1 million views on YouTube), before topping charts everywhere from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to Iraq and Palestine.

Her story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was born in a Syrian refugee camp after her parents fled Kurdistan in the early Nineties. They moved to New Zealand when Nouri was three.

She cites Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as performers who inspired her early love of music. “By the time I was seven, I would copy their singing on the TV, but I was never sure if I was doing it right.”

Turned out she was, though. At nine, in her first talent show, Nouri sang “When You Believe” — a duet by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey for the 1998 animation “The Prince of Egypt.” She received a standing ovation. And it was a buzz she never forgot.

“The thrill of performing, the feeling of singing the song and everyone loving it, and the shock of getting a standing ovation — that I could sing and other people liked it…” she says. “I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”

Nouri's story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was born in a Syrian refugee camp after her parents fled Kurdistan in the early Nineties. (Supplied)

“You never know when it’s finished, so the best thing to do is to hand it over to someone else and they will tell you when it’s ready,” she continues. “And that’s one of the best things about being in Los Anglese: being able to work both with Grammy award-winning producers as well as newer producers who are just grinding it out. You see different patterns and styles and it gives you a feel for different production styles.”

Nouri made the move to LA earlier this year, and is confident she can avoid the pitfalls that living in that city sometimes throws up. “Every day’s a learning experience in LA; I’m learning about new music, new concepts, as well as meeting new people and being exposed to new cultures and influences,” she says.

Nouri already had some experience of Hollywood glamour — she performed “The Only Gift I Need” for the soundtrack of the 2017 Will Ferrell-led comedy “Daddy’s Home 2.” And since moving to LA, she has been invited to sing the US national anthem at a few NBA games. But she’s hungry for further success.

“Where Do We Go From Here” is a perfect slice of slow-burn pop, with echoes — both in the music and the video — of Lana Del Rey. Nouri’s sound is compelling, and very modern, something reflected in her creative process.

Her debut single “Where Do We Go From Here” reached number one in New Zealand in March this year. (Supplied)

“Before I enter the recording studio, or a writing session, I have a concept in my mind of what I want to sing about,” she says. “It changes sometimes, so there has to be flexibility. I can be in the studio and hear a new beat and that will change the music, and ultimately it’s a collaboration. So we work together with the concept, starting either with the lyrics or the melody and going from there.

A big part of her drive comes from her upbringing. “My mum instilled discipline in all of us. It was hard to convince my mother that I was going to be a singer, but when she saw how hard I was working towards it, that put her mind at rest,” she says.

Nouri has spoken before about how her earliest memories are of the Syrian refugee camp, where she lived in a tent so small that her mother had to keep her feet outside it when she lay down. Those memories have undoubtedly played a major part in her relentless work ethic.

“I get up at the same time each morning, I go to the gym every day,” she says. “It’s almost like being in school with a set schedule. There’s a million other people doing the same thing, so you have to stay focused and disciplined. And so any temptations go right over my head, because I know what I have to do to get where I want.”

And where she wants to go is the very top. One of the refreshing things about Nouri is her complete honesty about her goals; there’s no circumspect mutterings about taking each day as it comes.

Nouri's family moved to New Zealand when Nouri was three. (Supplied)

“I want to be the greatest one day,” she says. “I want to leave something behind that people will remember. It’s a very competitive industry, but I’m looking to win. I am competing with myself and not with anyone else. I want to make sure I win for myself and my people and to make sure my story is heard — my story is the story of a billion other people and I want that heard. Of course, I have specific goals too, like winning a Grammy and then winning an Oscar and getting a Netflix documentary.”

That ambition goes hand-in-hand with her work ethic — for ambition is useless without drive. “I always say hard work trumps talent so when you have both, it’s inevitable, and I always feel like it’s never enough,” she says. “I get the Grammy and I take in the moment, but then I would focus on the next step, so how do I get the Oscar? Every day I am here I am serious and making sure I am taking advantage of the opportunities I have been given.”

Nouri is equally clear about what she wants her music to achieve on an emotional level too.

“I want my music to make people dance and cry at the same time. I have a hard time expressing how I feel when I speak, so my music is open instead — I express (myself) through my music,” she says.”Through my lyrics, I say the things people are too afraid to say.”