DUBAI: In his studio in studio in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, Tunisian-French artist eL Seed, 38, wears a smock filled with colorful smudges — remnants of a recent painting session. Working here is actually a rarity for eL Seed these days. He has become known — and in demand — the world over for his unique method of incorporating the aesthetic traditions of Arabic calligraphy into his large-scale outdoor graffiti works. He merges a variety of influences: from the graffiti culture of Paris (he was born and raised in France) and New York to French hip-hop and Arabic poetry. And, crucially, there is always a message. “I want my art to spark a dialogue between cultures,” he says.
A search for his identity was at the heart of his early artistic practice. “Every summer we would go to Tunisia, but in Tunisia people made me feel like I was not fully Tunisian and in France they made me feel like I was not fully French,” he recalls. “Because of my name and how I looked, I decided to learn to speak, read and write Arabic. This was how I discovered calligraphy and it led me to the art that I create today.”
eL Seed became known as a “calligraffiti” artist. “Calligraffiti became a tool for me to reconcile my French and my Tunisian identity,” he says. “Today I don’t need to decide whether I am French or Tunisian — it is not in my head anymore.” He adds that he no longer associates himself with the term. “I used to define myself by it and now I wish to be known simply as an artist,” he says.
Here, he talks us through some of his most significant works. Just as his art allowed him to bridge his Tunisian and French heritage, it now allows him to forge bridges across cultures and generations.
This was created along the security fences of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It is unfinished. I was asked to create the work by South Korea’s Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art in order to celebrate the reunification of the two nations; I was given the freedom to do whatever I wished. It was created during a time when tensions were mounting as North Korea had launched several ballistic missiles and conducted nuclear tests. The UN, by December 2017, had issued new sanctions against the country. ‘The Bridge’ was supposed to start in South Korea and end up in North Korea but the military then told me that the only place I could put it was on the border fence. Two months later we saw the two Korean leaders talking together for the first time in more than 60 years. I believe that art gives hope. It’s always good to be part of something that is bigger than you, and this project was one of the most relevant ones that I’ve worked on.
‘The Vidigal Favela’
Using my favorite color — fuchsia pink — my aim for this wall in the Vidigal Favela in Rio de Janeiro was to attract the attention of the international community to raise the status of the people inside the favelas and to remind us of our common humanity. Later, I discovered that the rooftop I had painted on was that of an art school — Escola Do Vidigal built by the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. A few days after I left Brazil, I received notifications of a post by the artist saying, ‘This morning, the roof of the school was painted with this huge tag by an unidentified artist, and I must say, it's quite beautiful [...] Thanks, awesome tagger.’ I was thrilled at this coincidence.
‘Mirrors of Babel’
We installed this 3.5-meter sculpture in a square in Toronto, and the idea was to play on the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. Toronto is (reportedly) the most diverse city in the world, and in the Bible the Tower of Babel tells the story of a human trying to reach God and God scares them by making them speak different languages, so the people find themselves in a position where they cannot understand each other. Toronto is actually the opposite; people who come from different places and around the world and speak different languages come to Toronto and speak English — not to build a tower but to build a society. I used the words of a Canadian-Mohawk Indian poet called Emily Pauline Johnson from an homage she wrote to Canada and I translated it into Arabic.
I created this for Desert X Alula, based on the 7th-century love story of Jameel Bin Ma'mar and Buthayna, from neighboring tribes. Buthayna’s people turned down Jameel’s marriage proposal because they felt Jameel’s verses praising the couple’s love had compromised her honor. Buthayna was forced to marry another man, but she and Jameel continued to be in love, even though their love was never consummated. Even after Buthayna was married, Jameel continued to visit her at Wadi ‘I-Kura, now present day Alula, and spoke in verse of his longing to be with her. His verses are not only an ode to his love but also to the natural surroundings.
This was one of my most ambitious projects: A mural of Arabic calligraphy in the Cairo neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr — a Christian Coptic community where the people call themselves Zaraeeb or ‘pig breeders’ because, for years, they have been collecting and sorting Cairo’s garbage. With the help of my team and locals from the neighborhood, we created this work across 50 buildings in order to illustrate the changing image of the Coptic community. I feel it was a project that really affected our lives. The painting could only be viewed in its entirety from the Muqattam Mountain, and reveals a powerful quote (from a Coptic bishop) that we should all think before we judge somebody: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.”
This is the wall of my grandfather’s house in the town of Temoula. My father was born and raised in this little house. But in 1986 my grandfather passed away and so my grandmother moved into the city where my uncle lives, so this house was abandoned for around 27 years until I came back in 2013 and painted the wall as part of my “Lost Walls” project. I wrote, “Temoula, there is no one like you.” I came back with my family and we found some tools and other items that used to below to my grandmother there. My uncle also showed me under which palm tree my father was born. I had a very beautiful time there.