“An angry bull on a balcony” says eL Seed when asked about some of the unexpected challenges his team faced on his boldest project to date.
Indeed, on his iPhone there’s a photo a bull on a sixth-story balcony. And that’s not all: “Some of the team were afraid of heights, the bottom dropping out on the rickety lifts we worked on, the pigs that gnawed our ropes on the rooftops … How can you plan for things like that?”
But planning was key to Perception, the monumental anamorphic art piece that involved 50 buildings on the outskirts of Cairo. The artist is quick to add that no one got hurt – “we were all fine, but it certainly was no easy task working from 8am to 7pm for three weeks with so little perspective on the final product in extreme conditions.
“But it was worth it.”
And the rest of the world thought so too. Perception went viral on Instagram on completion in April, and the Manshiyat Nasr neighbourhood is now officially on the international art world’s map thanks to the project.
The French-Tunisian artist, who has a studio in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, has a reputation for crafting intricate, colourful and optimistic messages across city buildings – often derelict or dilapidated buildings – to breathe new life into forgotten places.
He refers to his art as calligraffiti, and it can be found all over the world from shantytowns in Cape Town and favelas in Rio de Janiero to university campuses in North America, landmarks in Europe. And, yes, there’s even a limited run of Louis Vuitton scarves, but that’s for another story.
Each eL Seed project is self-funded and carefully planned. He selected Manshiyat Nasr because it’s the centre for the marginalised, garbage-collecting community of the Zaraeeb; “I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences,” he says.
The buildings provide a canvas for a quote from Athanasius of Alexandria, a 3rd century Coptic bishop: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first”. Not everything is always what it seems.
“People call them the ‘Zabaleen’ (garbage people), but this is not how they call themselves,” says eL Seed. “They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the ones who clean the entire city of Cairo.”
The Zabaleen are a historically disenfranchised group, not only Coptic Christians in a majority Muslim country but also because of their profession. “The community survives by recycling 80 percent of the garbage they collect,” says eL Seed. By comparison, most Western waste collectors recycle about 20 to 25 percent.
“I hope the project will bring light to the community of Zaraeeb and show the importance of those people in Cairo’s everyday life.”
eL Seed hopes that Perception will put a more positive spin on the community and maybe even boost tourism. “Manshiyat Nasr is so close to Cairo, but no one has ever heard of it; I hope that now people will. Most importantly, I hope that the project will push everyone to stop and think twice before judging other people.”
His team had to experience this message firsthand in the early days of the three-week project.
“Initially, it was hard to get past some of the bad smells of the accumulating garbage and all the animals that inhabit the town,” says eL Seed. But the Zaraeeb welcomed the incomers; “it was one of the most amazing human experiences that I have ever had. They are the most generous, honest and strong people.
So, just how does a street artist convince an entire town that painting on all over the exterior of their homes is a good idea and, in the end, will be a benefit to the whole town?
eL Seed approached local religious leaders and received their blessing for the project. That allowed him access to locals who would eventually invite the team into their homes and lives.
The artist is best known for his freestyle paintings, where he embarks on any project with an idea, but nothing concrete and he lets the conditions, his moods and inspiration dictate his art, but “this was impossible for Perception,” laughs eL Seed. “It was just too big, and it had to be planned in advance.” The project istelf took place over three weeks with a team of 21 people executing the painting, tracing the piece that the artist planned in advance over brick walls.
“I took a picture of the buildings and area that I wanted to paint. I sketched it on a paper, and then I took it into Photoshop, and I zoomed in. I printed each building out and then traced the calligraphy as I would want it painted.”
The result is a puzzle of Arabic calligraphy in sunset shades painted across 50 buildings. If you attempt to view the work from nearby, you will only see bits and pieces that may not make sense; the whole composition is revealed from a single vantage point atop Mokkatam Mountain.
Like most of eL Seed’s street art, he can’t promise that you will put will the pieces together to see the whole picture, or that you will be able to read it (it’s in Arabic, of course), or that you will even understand the translation in your native language. He just paints, because, he says, “it’s what I was born to do. I paint how I see the world, and what I would like to see happen in the world. I paint to understand things.
“My art is not political, it’s not devotional; it’s just me expressing myself in my native language. It’s that simple. People want to read more into it, but it’s just not there. For me, those matters are personal, and I don’t freely share them.”
What eL Seed does admit to sharing prolifically through his artwork is his search for identity. He was born in 1981 in Paris to Tunisian parents. In France, he never fully felt accepted as being French, though it was the country of his birth, and this contradiction led to his lifelong search for identity. He grew up speaking the Tunisian dialect of Arabic along with French and English, and did not learn to read or write standard Arabic until his teens, when discovered a renewed interest in his Tunisian roots.
“As I became more interested in who I ultimately was, it led me to the beauty of my native language and the long history of Arabic calligraphy.”
He credits the modern calligraphist Hassan Massoudy as one of his idols along with street artists Shuck2, Zafta and Hest1 who heavily influenced him in the 1990s.
His art is as full of dichotomies as was his heart in his late youth. His thoroughly modern renderings can be viewed as very abstract or very literal or both depending upon how you “read” them or perceive them. He also paints in a style that dates back to the 10th century but executes his art in the newest media possible, forgoing the manner in which Arabic calligraphy was traditionally done for the way truer to this modern aesthetic.
He says, “Even if you don’t read Arabic, I hope you will feel something when you see my art and everyone else’s. To me, visual art is like music you don’t have to understand every word – or even any word – to feel the meaning of the piece.
WORDS Liz Totton
Ed: If you want to learn more about eL Seed and his art, you can’t do better than the TED talk he gave in June 2016.