by Amelia Smith
In the heart of Shoreditch, French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed is transforming a dull grey wall into a colourful mural. He has already translated a quote from the English philosopher John Locke into Arabic, sprayed it in the shape of a circle, and is currently filling the spaces between the letters with pinks, yellows, and blues. Locke’s quote reads: “It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error, and another to put him in possession of the truth.” eL Seed says the quote addresses “collective and social responsibility and responsible ways to change minds,” which resonates with recent events in Tunisia.
The swirling Arabic script is the artist’s signature work so it’s hard to believe eL Seed only learnt how to read and write classical Arabic around ten years ago: “I had the desire to get back to my roots,” he told me over Skype . Considered part of the “calligraffiti” style — a cross between the artistic disciplines of calligraphy and graffiti — eL Seed’s work carries clear elements of both, yet remains distinctive. Unlike traditional calligraphers who obtain an official certificate from a master, eL Seed didn’t learn the rules and developed his own style instead. He incorporated this into his existing passion for hip-hop and graffiti, and his trademark artwork was born.
eL Seed’s work is always large-scale but he doesn’t use stencils and most of the time doesn’t have any sketches or pre-planned measurements. He says he can mull over a design for months or weeks before he comes to create it, but this can all change at the last moment. “Most of the time it happens the day I’m starting the work, exactly what it is I want to do,” he says. “Sometimes I plan something for weeks and then I get in front of the wall and I just change my mind.”
The mural in Shoreditch marks the opening of this year’s Shubbak festival, an annual London festival offering a glimpse into contemporary Arab art and culture. It is also eL Seed’s first UK commission. “I think Shubbak is a great initiative because ‘shubbak’ in Arabic means ‘window’, and it’s an open window to a different country.” He tells me that he thinks it’s really good to have these kinds of initiatives in the West, especially with the negative media coverage and stereotyping that tends to prevail about the Arab world. “I think it’s a good way to show that what we see in the media, this is not us; terrorism is an extreme thing. At the same time I don’t think we should just respond to everything bad that we see around the world, we should show the beauty of our culture and show the great artistic productions we have in the Middle East.”
Besides painting at the Village Underground in Shoreditch, eL Seed has created work on a rooftop in the Vidigal favela in Rio de Janeiro, a wall of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and a motorway underpass in Qatar. His biggest project was when he set off on a road trip around Tunisia last year with the intention of discovering little-known areas of the country, then painting his murals on their walls. Twenty-four paintings around the country are documented in his book Lost Walls.
On top of a café in the main square of Guelala, a village on the remote Tunisian island of Djerba, a swirl of blue calligraffiti reads “Taghouri Dassah” which is Amazigh (a local dialect) for “authentic clay”. It is a reference to the pottery trade that is legendary here and is eL Seed’s tribute to the community. Under former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali it was forbidden to speak Amazigh on the streets; archives documenting the community were destroyed and parents were prohibited from giving their children traditional names. For the villagers of Guelala, the main concern these days is reviving their forgotten culture.
On a seafront wall on the Kerkennah Islands in the east of Tunisia, eL Seed has written: “The sea is not a gift from our parents, but a loan from our children” in blue, orange, yellow, and pink. He tells me that the Kerkennah Islands are special because it is the only place in the world where people can own part of the sea. Locals use an old way of fishing using palm trees and clay pots but more recently the younger generation have brought in big boats that pick up everything. The fear is that in a few years’ time there will be no fish stocks left.
Whether it’s a polemic on terrorist attacks in Tunisia, drawing attention to green fishing methods, the revival of the Berber tradition, the problem of political and cultural identity, cultural concerns or economic issues, eL Seed says that all of his work carries a message: “I always try to make sure that the message I put is talking to the local community first and then make sure the message is universal so anybody around the world can relate to it. So the paintings I did in Tunisia were relevant to the place but somebody can relate to it even if he’s in Cairo or South Africa.”
eL Seed’s work may comment on social issues, but his murals are first and foremost simply attractive pieces of art, and unless you are good at deciphering the swirls of Arabic calligraphy you may not necessarily guess that they carry a hidden meaning. He explains that the aim of Lost Walls wasn’t just to highlight people’s grievances; it was also to attract people to the beauty of country and the diversity of the landscape and people. “It’s a book about the country, about people, about heritage and history. That was the goal, to make people discover Tunisia from a different angle.”
Perhaps because he did such a large project in Tunisia, or because he is a street artist, various journalists have dubbed eL Seed as a voice of the Arab Spring, one of the artists to emerge from the 2011 revolutions that swept the region. He insists that this is not true; in fact, he was painting long before 2011.
“A lot of people died making the revolution and I think it would be really selfish to use this as a way to bring light on me and my art. I didn’t want to, and that’s why when I did the project Lost Walls, I decided to go totally in the opposite direction. I didn’t paint in Sidi Bouzid, the city where the revolution started, I didn’t want to do that because I want to separate myself from the idea of the Tunisian revolution, yet everybody wants to put me in this cage.”
eL Seed’s mural can be found at Village Underground, 54 Holywell Lane, London, EC2A 3PQ. This year’s Shubbak festival runs from 11-26 July and boasts a diverse cultural and artistic programme from across the Arab world and wider Middle East.
A version of this article was originally published on Middle East Monitor