eL Seed uses Arabic calligraphy and a distinctive style to spread messages of peace and to underline the commonalities of human existence.
Mirage - Al Ula
Whether painting on canvases, walls, or crafting large-scale steel sculptures, eL Seed employs what is known as calligraffiti—melding traditional Arabic calligraphy with the style and colors of graffiti—writing meaningful quotes across his chosen surfaces. His artwork is a tool for unifying communities and redressing stereotypes, and can be found all over the world.
His work has been shown in exhibitions and in public places across the globe including most notably on the façade of L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, in the favelas of Rio di Janeiro, on the DMZ in between North and South Korea, in the slums of Cape Town and in the heart of Cairo’s garbage collectors neighbourhood.
We talk to el Seed about creating a unique calligraffiti style, how his identity and cultural heritage has influenced his practice, using art as a tool for social change and his thoughts on the future of Islamic art and Arabic calligraphy.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your journey to becoming an artist?
My childhood was happy and I was raised in the suburbs of Paris. I always say that we don’t become an artist, we are an artist and then there are circumstances that happen in life that allow us to express our artistic touch. I have been painting and drawing since I was a kid but never thought I could make a living out of it. I have grown organically with art and today I realize I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
You’ve said that your calligraphy is different from the traditional Arabic style of calligraphy. For those who may not be familiar with Arabic calligraphy, what are some of its trademark components and how is it different from the style you use in your work?
I don’t call myself a calligrapher. To call yourself as a calligrapher you must have been trained by master calligrapher and this goes on 1400 years back. I was not reading and writing Arabic until was 18. When I discovered calligraphy, I didn’t know there were rules in it. When I started practicing calligraphy, I just took traditional calligraphy, playing with letters extending them, twisting them. Later on, when I started developing my own style of calligraphy, people started telling me before I broke the rules, I should learn them and then I realized actually I don’t want to learn them because I don’t want to be conditioned by rules. Ideally, I see art as a kind of free expression of my soul and mind, and I would never learn it - I will be free in this way.
Can you tell us more about how your Arabic calligraphy has helped reconcile your two identities as a French-Tunisian, and cultural heritage?
I was born and raised by French and Tunisian parents. In my teenage years I had a bit of an identity crisis where I couldn’t define whether I was Tunisian or French and was trying to reconcile with this. I felt society was trying to push me to choose a definition of who I was. At first, I emphasized my Tunisian identity by learning how to read and write Arabic. Then I realized after practicing calligraphy that I would never be able to do what I am doing if I was not a French. Arabic calligraphy helped me reconcile my French and my Tunisian identity and today I use it as a way to create bridges between people culture and generations.
How has the artistic freedom of street culture, and creating street art influenced your practice?
Painting on the wall gives you the freedom in the sheer fact that you are seen creating in public spaces, outdoor not inside confined by the four walls. Graffiti in general was the organic culture built by its own practitioner and fact that there were no rules, no school of thoughts. It’s something that grows organically and I think this gave me my freedom as an artist, to create my calligraphy as it is today.
Mirrors of Babel, Toronto Canada
The spraycan is one of the instruments from the four elements of hip-hop. How hip-hop are you?
I think I was influenced a lot by hip hop culture in general. I used to be a break dancer. I was more focused into dancing than painting back in days. This is one layer of my identity today as an artist but not my full identity. This is definitely something I took inspiration from. So, I am hip hop in a way.
How did you create such an identifiable unique artistic style?
My style is the evolution of my practice. It grows organically. I never planned to be doing it. It’s just an evolution of practicing years and years. Sometimes you develop kind of reflex of how you see the letters and script, and how you see an artwork in public space.
Tolerance and peace are key themes within your work and you hope your art bring people and cultures together. Why is this important to you?
It is crucial to me because I believe in humanity and I think emotions are what makes us human, and art allows us actually to feel emotions and reconciles us with our emotions. I have been to a number of places around the world, people have always reacted in the same way towards my work. I think what connects everyone from South Korea to Brazil to France to South Africa is our humanity, and as an Artist I have a social responsibility to bring people together to connect them not to separate them.
How do you relate your work to both local and global audiences?
I work with messages. I always make sure the messages that I use in my artwork are relevant to the place where I am creating my artwork, but I have a universal dimension anybody around the world can relate to - and this is the point of what I do. I use the words from the community where I am creating the artwork. I will use the poetry that’s from the place I am creating in, so people can have a connection with the word and that’s a way for me to create a bridge between my artwork and the people.
The Bridge, DMZ Korea
Can art promote social change and provide a scope for dialogue?
Of course, art can promote social change and open dialogue. I have seen it experienced in so many places around the world. This is why I sincerely believe in it. I saw it in Egypt, Cairo in garbage collector neighborhoods and in Nepal recently in a village three hours away from Kathmandu that was the epicenter of the earthquake.
The Bridge, DMZ Korea
Does your audience need to understand Arabic when they view your work?
As of my work, I don’t target any people in general. I target human beings in general and I use Arabic scripts and it doesn’t mean that my work is only made for Arab people. I think there are three ways of looking at my work. First way in statistics - so if anybody can feel emotion when you look at Arabic script, I always say it reaches your heart and could before it touches your eyes. The second one is looking at my artwork as the message and what I am writing has meaning all the time. And the third layer is the context as to why I am writing in this space, so this is how you look at it. You don’t need to be an Arabic speaking person to understand the depth meaning of my artwork.
Like the poets found north of Mecca before Islam, you do not sign your work. Can you speak about this creative tradition and how it inspires you?
Indeed the reason I don’t sign my work was at some point inspired by writer Mullaqat. Everybody knew the words, but nobody knew who was behind it. So, for me message was way more important than anything and that’s why I don’t sign. Also, I realized my style of calligraphy became my signature and I stopped signing my work because I think I don’t own the public space. I own the piece while I am making it but, once it is finished it belongs to the public, to the community. So I feel signing my name on the wall gives me the ownership, but in actual it doesn’t belong to me.
Like Her, Nepal
What has been your most challenging project?
Each project has its own challenges, physical, emotional and technical. Each project has a behind the scenes story. I don’t think one wall or one project is easy. Each of them has its own story and the challenges comes along with that story.
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you, and how has your art practice grown or changed?
A typical day in studio is never the same, because I travel a lot, but I try to have a routine I try to come as early as possible. I try to do the administrative part first and then creative part. I never work on only one piece at a time rather many pieces at a same time, sometimes work on pieces started two years ago but are yet not finished.
Are any of your calligraphy works inspired specifically by the Islamic art tradition?
My Main inspiration is Islamic art because Arabic calligraphy is the pillar of Islamic art. So I took my inspiration from classical calligraphy at the beginning of my journey.
The Bridge, DMZ Korea
What are your thoughts on the future of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art, do you think it has a place in mainstream spaces?
I think what people think when you speak about Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art is it is ancient art. It is the perception of folk but today artists are using Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art in a way relevant to right now. They communicate about today with their art, speak about today’s problems and mostly they are alive. So, it is not the question of being mainstream, as we have a place in the arts, so definitely Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic art is relevant to our times.
For more information check out https://elseed-art.com/
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not
necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners,
employees and affiliates.