Through his work, artist eL Seed is trying to address the stigma surrounding Arabic calligraphy and the stereotypes of Muslim communities. Born and raised in Paris by Tunisian parents, eL Seed describes himself as ‘always sharing this double culture.’ eL Seed did not learn Arabic until he was 18, as he sought to discover his Arabic identity in a country he increasingly didn’t feel a part of: “It was really hard to feel French even though I was born there, and so in this quest for identity I felt this desire to understand my roots.”
Through the discovery of his Arabic identity, eL Seed developed his signature style, calligraffiti: a blend of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti. eL Seed emphasises his rejection of stencils or sketches, drawing all of his murals freehand. While his art is visually stunning, the importance of his work also lies in the message he leaves with each mural; incorporating a quote or poem that is specific to the community in which he is painting:
“I think that Arabic script touches your soul before it reaches your eyes, there is a beauty in it that you don’t need to translate, I believe it speaks to everybody. When you get the meaning, you feel connected to it. I always make sure to make messages relevant to the place in which I am painting, but I also ensure that the message has a universal dimension, so anyone around the world can connect to it.” eL Seed, 2015
The way that eL Seed goes about his work is inspired by an Arabic proverbial tradition whereby ‘the message comes before the name,’ which is why he does not sign his murals or post the translation of the text. In this way his work is ‘totally public’ and open to interpretation.
“You don’t need to know the message to feel the peace” eL Seed, 2014
The combination of eL Seed’s stunning visuals and beautiful messages in our unique moment of heightening contempt and increased hate crime has led his work to take on a new political importance. While eL Seed has been reported as being reluctant to be political, he is keen to directly address stereotypes surrounding Muslim communities:
“All the stereotypes about Arabic script, they have this wrong image about Arab people and Islam in general and I play with that a lot. In LA I did this wall a few years ago, that said 'this is just a phrase in Arabic,' and people kept asking me what it was about and I said, ‘it is just a phrase in Arabic’- for me this was a way for me to break this stereotype.”
In his hometown of Gabes in Tunisia, on the tower of the main mosque (minaret), is where eL Seed feels is his most important work. For this mural, he chose a verse from the Quran; “oh human kind, we have created you from man and a female and made you people and tribe so you may know each other.”
Within this message eL Seed says, is a universal call for peace, tolerance and acceptance from the side that is not usually portrayed in a good light in the media.
“It was amazing how the local community reacted to the painting and how proud they were of the minaret gaining so much attention from international press people around the world. For the Imam however, it was not just a painting, it was deeper than that, he hoped that this minaret would become a monument of the city and attract people to this forgotten place of Tunisia.”
El Seed recognises the importance of the time-space in which he is working and his potential impact: “the universality of the message, political context of Tunisia at this time and writing Quran in this graffiti way was not insignificant, it reunited communities. Bringing people, generations and culture together through Arabic calligraphy is what I do. Writing messages is the essence of my artwork.”
Indeed, the importance of his work should not be underestimated. As part of a festival celebrating other cultures, eL Seed was invited to the University of Houston to paint a mural on the campus to promote religious tolerance, cultural understanding and deconstruct narratives surrounding Islam. Using a quote by Sam Houston, “Knowledge is the food of genius, and my son, let no opportunity escape you to treasure up knowledge," the message speaks to all in a time where the dominant political messages are those of anti-diversity.
One student who I spoke to who was part of the Muslim community at the university broke down in tears, saying that with eL Seed’s mural she finally felt that she had a voice that legitimated her presence on the campus. She said that it motivated her to try harder in her school work and to integrate herself into the community.
Graffiti brings a lot of attention to a city, but through his work eL Seed is also bringing a lot of attention to relationships between communities. The beauty of eL Seed’s work is that it promotes religious tolerance on both sides, with the underlying messages of preserving and appreciating one’s culture speaking to all. His work, while not always religious or political, has seemingly only been an asset to the communities in which he has painted, his messages, talent and warm personality inspiring everyone he meets.
The beauty of 'calligraffiti' is that you do not need to be educated, knowledgeable, proficient in Arabic or interested in art to appreciate what el Seed is doing. His work is in the public sphere for all to see, and even if people take an interest, google his images or see his work, a global awareness can be created and minds can begin to slowly change.
“If art can’t do it, nothing can” Karen Farber, Director of the University of Houston Art Gallery.
With his work, eL Seed hopes to break stereotypes through the beauty of Arabic script but he also emphasises that it is an invitation to his language, culture and art. “I am very proud of my culture, and I am trying to be an ambassador of it through my work.”
An anecdote that appeals to how one should think about eL Seed’s work is a story of one of his experiences in Paris; where as part of a festival, he was invited to paint on a wall, but when the owner realised he was writing in Arabic Script he became so angry he made him leave and clean it off. The next day, the director of the festival said they had found another wall for him to paint, right in front of this man’s house. Instead of writing something spiteful or ironic eL Seed wrote simply, “Open your heart.”
Check out eL Seed on: www.elseed-art.com
Follow him on Instagram: eL Seed
Take a look at his newest piece here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/29/world/middleeast/cairo-mural-garbage.html