Using Arabic calligraphy, eL Seed paints messages of hope on the exterior walls of buildings. He claims the beauty of Arabic script — even if you can’t read it — can change negative perceptions of Arab culture.
Even for those unfamiliar with the graffiti movement, French-Tunisian artist eL Seed is a vital voice. eL Seed’s ‘calligraffiti’ combines Arabic calligraphic traditions with current graffiti art to provoke discussion about politics and art, and to promote cultural tolerance.
eL Seed, who was born in Paris in 1981 to Tunisian parents, began his career by drawing, sketching, and spray-painting walls across the streets of Paris. Growing up speaking French and his parents’ Tunisian dialect, he did not learn to read or write Arabic until he was in his late teens, when he discovered a profound affection for and connection to his Arabic roots, as well as their art, history, and modern legacy. Around the age of 16, the term eL Seed was inspired by the French masterpiece Le Cid, or “The Lord.”
eL Seed has produced a colorful new type of ‘calligraffiti,’ a style that originated in the late 1970s by combining graffiti with calligraphy. He abandoned a commercial profession to pursue his passion for graffiti painting full-time, allowing him to embrace his background. His art is influenced by tradition in the sense that it can provoke vital questions about contemporary challenges, thereby fostering tolerance and uniting people. His art now adorns walls, buildings, museums, galleries, and mosques all over the globe, from the streets of London and exhibitions in Paris to the road tunnels of Qatar, and he has even collaborated with Louis Vuitton on scarf designs.
The 2012 mural on the minaret of the Jara Mosque in Gabès, Tunisia, which gained international media attention, was maybe his most renowned and even controversial work. The piece, which was inspired by a phrase from the Qur’an, appeals for tolerance and mutual understanding between individuals and nations, especially in response to the growing prominence of radical, ultraconservative Islamist parties since the 2011 Tunisian revolution.
In reaction to such restrictions on art, eL Seed’s artwork celebrates communication, open-mindedness, and liberty. He explains that the initiative was “not about adorning a mosque” but rather “about making art a visible actor in the process of cultural and political transformation” and that “art may spark good discourse, particularly in the uncertain political atmosphere in Tunisia right now.” Hence, his artwork countered the inevitably negative attention that surrounded the Jara Mosque mural, which attempted to portray it as ‘haram’ or blasphemous. While Tunisian blogs and social media praised the project, major news channels and newspapers remained silent, which the artist finds “disappointing” because it reflects a widespread “desire to divide and create polemics to feed the news channels, rather than advance dialogue and fruitful national debates.” Fortunately, worldwide coverage of the piece was much more positive, with newspapers and television praising the endeavor.
For eL Seed, art is a means to combat religious fanatics’ and liberals’ intolerance. His intention for the Jara mosque was to bring people together, which is why he selected these verses from the Qur’an: “Oh mankind, we created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so that you may know one another.” He appreciates the egalitarian possibilities of street art, such as graffiti, which “brings art to all.” Before the revolution, art in Tunisia was extremely bourgeois, but if you hang large works of art on the walls, it becomes accessible to all. He addresses the proliferation of street art in Tunisia since the revolution and confidently proclaims, “I hope it will inspire others to do insane initiatives without fear.”
eL Seed is certain that the shape, color, and pattern of his artwork can be appreciated by anyone, despite the fact that the Arabic language employed in his work may be incomprehensible to those who cannot read the script, causing them to miss the message. Accentuating the complexity of calligraphy, he demonstrates how each letter may be shaped in hundreds of different ways, noting that a significant portion of his work is “about allowing the audience to interact with the letters without necessarily being able to understand them.”
He emphasizes the spontaneous, instinctive quality of his works, which he only creates when he is inspired by particular places or ideas and with minimal planning. He states, “When I see a wall on the side of the road, I simply paint it.” I attempt to make what I write relevant to the location. About color, he says, “sometimes I attempt to make it a mixture so that it merges in with the surroundings, and sometimes I want to have it contrast with the surroundings.” I want to ensure that it is published.
In addition, he undertook his ‘Hidden Walls’ project, which is now a published book, by visiting areas in Tunisia that are seldom visited by visitors or businesses but have historical or cultural significance. One of his journey’s destinations was the little village of Akouda, where a design he had painted on the steps of the old mosque was vandalized and removed from the wall. Surprisingly, eL Seed continues, ‘I was delighted that it elicited this kind of reaction from some people,’ as it served to stimulate and foster discussion about the role of art in Islam. According to eL Seed, the reactions and remarks of the public were “not really a clash, but more a historical [discussion], and I enjoyed it.”
For eL Seed, calligraffiti and street art represent not only two traditions from which they come, but also the prospect of a better, more unified future. His art seeks to facilitate dialogue and acceptance across cultures and nations by fostering a greater mutual understanding and tolerance. He says, “I wish to convey that discourse leads to positive interactions.” Every time I paint, I aspire to break a few prejudices or obstacles.
NOTE: Parts of this article were taken from an interview originally published on theculturetrip.com.
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