As iconic street artist eL Seed holds his first-ever Cairo exhibit this month, we sit down with eL Seed at his studio in Dubai to get his thoughts on Arabic calligraphy, bringing communities together, and what it was like convincing 50 people to let him paint their homes in what’s known as Cairo’s garbage district.
by Dominika Maslikowski
Can you tell us about your experience in Egypt working on your piece in Manshiat Nasr?
I never went to Egypt before my first trip last summer to start the project. The first place I visited in Egypt was Manshiat Nasser. I landed on Sunday and then on Monday morning I was there, not knowing anybody. I head about the place when a few years ago they killed the pigs. I got this humanist intention of going there and painting something in a poor place, but I had no idea what I was going to encounter. When I arrived there, my mind totally changed and I realized I was wrong. Because you think they’re poor and dirty and live in garbage, but actually they live away from the garbage, which makes a total difference.
When I got there, I went straight to the St. Simon monastery on top of the mountain, and there I found a guide from the church to go on the rooftop. I knew already what I wanted to do, but the question was how I was going to convince 50 building owners and tell them, ‘I’m an artist and I want to paint your house, and all your houses together will make one piece.’ This guy told me I don’t need to convince anybody, I just need to convince Father Samaan. To get to that, he told me I need to first convince Mario, who is a Polish guy who moved to Egypt 20 years ago and does all the artwork at the cave church. I managed to get Mario on the phone, because he was on vacation, and he arranged a meeting for me with Father Samaan.
Father Samaan was mainly concerned with what I was going to write on the walls. He said this is a Christian community, and I said I know that. I explained the way I work, and that everywhere I go I try to make sure that what I’m writing is relevant to the place where I’m painting. It took me three or four months to decide what I was going to write. I found this quote by Saint Athanasius, who was a Coptic Bishop from Alexandria, that said anybody who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.
I got so many books about Coptic history, Coptic art, the story of Christianity of Egypt. I read so many things, and then I found this quote and it fit perfectly. So I went back to Cairo and met Father Samaan again. He liked the quote and said ok. Then we started the logistics. We brought the paint to Egypt even before getting the final approval of the Father. Then it was trying to find a lift company to work with. It wasn’t easy. It’s a tough place. There’s a smell, even the lift is a manual lift.
How does that quote relate to Manshiat Nasr?
If you want to see the sunlight – see someone’s real face – you need to wipe your eyes first. It means to clean, or erase the stereotypes and conceptions you have of somebody. You can see the piece from different angles, but there’s only one angle where you see the whole picture, so there was that as well.
Do you consider yourself as reviving the art of calligraphy, or bringing something new to it? Do you think it’s a dying art form?
Calligraphy is often considered as an old-fashioned art. I never learned classical calligraphy, but I think the fact that many artists are doing graffiti with Arabic and painting on the street using the language of youths makes it more relevant to the new generation. I’m not saying I’m reviving anything. I think I’m part of the movement of many artists who are using letters in a newer way.
I take inspiration from classical Arabic calligraphy, so this is the first source of inspiration. I know where the base is from, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve done if I hadn’t seen classical calligraphy first. I didn’t know the rules when I first started doing calligraphy. I just did my stuff. Some people told me I couldn’t do it because there are rules … I don’t want to get closed off in a box.
How has your work evolved since you started in the 1990s?
In the 1990s, I didn’t paint in Arabic. The Arabic came later. I started to read and write Arabic when I was 18. Arabic script came even later … It’s an evolution. In the beginning, using Arabic in my art was more of a quest of identity, and to rebuild this identity that I didn’t know. I was born and raised in France, and at some point I had a kind of identity crisis and I rejected the French side of my identity. And the irony was that Arabic calligraphy made me accept and claim my French identity as well.
What’s the ultimate aim of your art, or the goal of your work?
There are different levels of reading it. You see it as maybe beautiful, like you look at an abstract piece of art. Then, there’s the second layer which is the message. And the third layer of the context of where the piece was made. When you look at Manshiat Nasr, you see an anamorphic piece going across 50 buildings, and then what is written, and then why here? All these things make the whole picture.
For me, the main goal is to bring people, the community, generations, and cultures together. I felt Manshiat Nasr is the perfect example because you can say what you want about the clash of Christians and Muslims in Egypt, but honestly I lived in the Christian community almost a month there and they welcomed me like a brother. I saw there was no difference between us. It just gives you hope in humanity, and this is the most important part of the project.
eL Seed / The Cairo Exhibition is going on now until January 10th at Art Talks Gallery, 8 El-Kamel Mohamed St., Zamalek. For more information, check the gallery’s website or Facebook.
Art Talks Gallery looks back at the artist’s iconic 2016 mural in Manshiat Nasr that challenged conceptions of the garbage collectors who live in the impoverished district.
by Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani, founder of Art Talks Gallery
Last March, a mind-blowing picture went viral on social media. It showed a view of dispersed rooftops in a seemingly underprivileged and crowded city. Right in the middle was some monumental graffiti with Arabic calligraphy, uniting dozens of building façades to create a surreal flying canvas. The picture, it soon transpired, was of Cairo and the man behind the stunning black, white, turquoise, and ocher work was celebrated French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed. In his instantly recognizable, extravagant signature style, the 35-year old Paris-born artist had created his most ambitious project yet.
The massive project, which was kept under wraps during the three-week execution and was entirely self-funded, was created in an unusual and shunned neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasser, known as El-Zabaleen. For decades, a community of predominantly Coptic Egyptians have lived and worked there, collecting the trash of the city and in the process have developed an efficient and highly profitable recycling system. Yet despite the fundamental necessity of keeping the glorious city clean and the pioneering results in recycling 80 percent of the garbage collected, the area and its inhabitants are perceived as dirty and are marginalized and segregated.
The antagonistic feeling of ‘repulsed necessity’ or ‘unappreciated servicing’ inspired eL Seed to create Perception, a social outreach project aimed at changing perception and offering due respect to others. The initiative ultimately transformed eL Seed on a personal level. “All those buildings were just numbers: building number 1, number 2, number 6, 18, 29,” he said. “But by the end, all those buildings were associated with families. This is the house of Uncle Ibrahim, this is the house of Uncle Bakheet. I’d never received this kind of welcome anywhere in the world.”
Days after the picture went viral, international media outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and the BBC featured eL Seed’s aesthetic transformation and lauded his call for tolerance. In Egypt however, the mural went sadly unheard of by the public at large and luckily was overlooked by the authorities. The Embassy of Egypt in Washington DC however did take notice and tweeted the picture saying: “We’re totally amazed this morning by @elseedart’s newest project in Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo. See for yourself.’
After two years of trial and error to bring him over for a show, eL Seed is finally in Cairo, putting on a show at Art Talks Gallery in Zamalek. The exhibit is built around the Perception project and will showcase a series of works on canvas and lithographs, inspired by his memorable experience with the people of Cairo and the kindness and generosity Egyptians are known for.
We at Art Talks want to let eL Seed know that we saw. That we appreciate. That we understand. The white of the letters on Manshiyat Nasser’s walls is a fluorescent glow in the dark paint. With some black light projectors, it illuminates the whole neighborhood at night, shining light on a neglected yet indispensable community. In return, we want to tell eL Seed and his team one word that by now must be deeply seated in their vocabulary: Nawartuna! (you brought us light).
Born in Paris in 1981, eL Seed began his career drawing, sketching and spray-painting walls throughout the streets of Paris. Combining his love of street art with traditions of Arabic calligraphy, eL Seed has re-invented a vibrant new form of ‘calligraffiti,’ a style originating in the late 1970s which combines graffiti and calligraphy and which he refers to as having “democratic potential.” His monumental walls are now seen across the world, from Algiers, Cape Town, Doha and Montreal to New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Sharjah and Texas, to name a few — all transformed by his magic spray and peaceful messages. In 2013 for example, eL Seed painted a controversial wall in a centuries-old Berber oasis. A few months after the uprising erupted in Tunisia, he chose as his new canvas a 30-meter high wall of an incomplete minaret of the Jara mosque in his home town in Gabes, Tunisia.