eL Seed Uses Words To Create Works Of Art Across Urban Landscapes

By Adam Baidawi
13 January 2019
Art, EL Seed
With a steady hand and a knack for social impact, the Arab artist makes urban spaces a grand, public canvas

At its best, art sparks dialogue. And dialogue-sparking works have become a calling card for eL Seed, the French-Tunisian whose creations blend Arabic calligraphy, urban streetscapes and graffiti.

If there’s a singular mission behind his sprawling murals, it’s the combatting of stigma against the Arab world. “There’s a lot of ignorance,” he says, simply, on a recent afternoon. “I wish we had more voicing of ourselves, by ourselves. Not relying on the Western world. That’s one of my fights today.”
eL Seed’s melange of Arabic calligraphy and street art is made all the more compelling by the fact that he didn’t learn to read or write Arabic until his late youth. 

It was his large-scale work in the Manshiyat Naser neighbourhood of Cairo that truly captured the world’s attention: a creation across dozens of buildings that could only be properly appreciated from a nearby mountaintop.

eL Seed

Since his 2014 residency at Tashkeel, eL Seed’s relationship with the city of Dubai has continued to flourish with dramatic installations, most recently via a collaboration with luxury Italian fashion brand, Loro Piana, whose November pop-up celebrated all things wool.

eL Seed

For those who aren’t familiar with your work and technique, what are the essentials?
Well, it’s a lot of breathing and a lot of research. Words carry a huge weight for me. Words are a beautiful tool but a dangerous tool. You can hurt, you can kill and you can harm with words, but you can also heal, inspire and help, and that’s the most important thing for me – the weight of the word. From then, it’s just about the flow.

When you were growing up, there wasn’t an established community for Arabic street art. What were the challenges in melding Arabic with such a distinct aesthetic? Especially since you didn’t learn Arabic until you were a teenager.
I don’t think there were challenges. You organically grow. For example, one of my unique touches is this twist on the letters. I was making a piece and I was limited with space – at one point, I couldn’t fit the letter that I wanted, so I just twisted it. Sometimes, your limits make you develop something new. I mean, I would not be doing what I am today if I was not born in France, if I was familiar with Arabic since the beginning, it would be different.

eL Seed

Talk us through what you’ve created with Loro Piana here in Dubai.
Loro Piana approached me a few months ago. I didn’t know much about the brand. I checked online and realised that we had common values and principles: they take an old craft and be as innovative as they can with it. For me, there’s also a certain way to use an old craft – like Arabic calligraphy – and modernise it into street art. So, I was like okay, this is something that might work.

Do collaborations like this give you something different to working independently?
I love the process. I like to know how you make something: Discovering how the wool goes from raw material to where it can be. It’s amazing. Last week, I was in Tunisia, I took my kids to collect olives. I wanted to see the process of how olive oil is made, the kids wanted to see the process. You know – picking up the olives, taking off the leaves, the cold pressure… You need to know what the process is to appreciate it.

Do you hope people will have the same appreciation for your work?
As an artist, that’s what made me accept this collaboration, because I think there’s a sense of craft and this is important. I think people see a piece of art and think, “Ah that’s cool!” But sometimes, you work on something for two years, you fall, you fail. My other piece [in the Dubai Opera district] – the pink one – I tried, I failed, I destroyed 22 pieces before finding my way.

What draws you to public spaces as a canvas?
How can you meet people if you sit at home? Being in a studio is cool, but sometimes boring. There’s no story to tell. I feel like people try and create some bulls*** about what they do. I feel like sometimes people create a concept and then create the piece instead of creating the piece and letting the flow go. You open yourself up to an audience, but also criticism.

eL Seed

Some said that your work in Manshiyat Naser took advantage of the local community.
Yes, we have some people say, “Why did you go there?” and so on. How do you know what these people need? Did you go there? They don’t need your pity, they don’t need your money.

What do you think when people criticise you, and say you took advantage of an underprivileged neighbourhood?
What advantage? I put my own money in this. I self-published a book about the project – the proceeds of the book are going to them.

You’ve had so many incredible opportunities in Dubai – and built a strong relationship with Lateefa bint Maktoum – what does that mean to you as an artist?
Most of my work is outside the Arab world. Dubai was a good platform for me. Sheikha Latifa, she’s the kind of person that has a really good critical eye. She’s like, “This is too easy.” She’ll come to me and she’ll push me. When she invited me to do the residency, she said, “Look, come, and by the time you leave, you need to do something you’ve never done before.”

eL Seed

Who are the street artists that inspire you?
[Cyril] Kongo, Juan, they used to be the guys I looked up to as a kid. There was no reference for painting in Arabic – so, I brought my inspiration from graffiti.

What about nowadays – which of your peers do you admire?
Aryz, the Spanish artist: for the path he took and the style he created for himself. That’s someone super discreet, not always coming with a slap in the face. I like people who don’t talk too much. Then J.R. I have one of his artwork on my phone, I met him a few months ago.

Are there any Arabs who have caught your eye?
I like Sundus Abdul Haidi and her sister Tamara – they’re Iraqi artists.

What do you appreciate about them?
I like their approach to the world, their view on the Arab world and their view on the diaspora issue. I love the way they portray the Arab world from an eye on the inside. They don’t have this orientalist approach. I think sometimes in Dubai, the voice of Arabs have been dictated by others.

What do you say to those who dismiss the Arab world’s cultural scene?
That’s what people believe and to be honest, it’s a debate that I don’t engage with because people don’t think that civilisation is one element. You don’t build a civilisation from one thing, its contributions from everybody. If someone tells you, “We did this,” no, you did this because someone did it before you. The Arab world is in every part of society today. There’s more than 600 words in French that come from Arabic words. The world owes a lot to the Arab world.