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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”