He is a French-Tunisian artist using Arabic calligraphy to spread messages of peace and unity, and redress stereotypes he hopes will then create dialogue and lead to more tolerance among cultures.
But who is eL Seed and what’s behind his extraordinary journey and artistic style, or even his name? We find out in an exclusive interview with the man himself, in his studio he always keeps open so people can visit him and discover his work up close.
Meet eL Seed
GLH: Hello eL Seed. Absolute pleasure to be talking to you. As we understand, you’re a French-Tunisian “calligraffiti” artist based in Dubai, in an area that’s dedicated to art. And you mix traditional Arabic calligraphy with more modern graffiti art. In itself, this story is already fascinating to us, but can you tell us a bit about your journey and the source of your unique artistic style?
eL Seed: I was born and raised in France but I spent all my summers in Tunisia. And whenever I would come to Tunisia, they would say that I’m not Tunisian, and when I would be in France, I would hear the same thing: I’m not French. So I had this sort of identity crisis when I was around 16 or 17 years old. I had the impression that I had to choose between being either French or Tunisian.
My first name has an Arabic influence, therefore I believed myself to be more Tunisian than French. I then started to learn Arabic because up until then, I only spoke the local Tunisian dialect. I learned to read and write. I had already begun doing graffiti in Paris, and it was only later that I discovered calligraphy. Without realizing it, I started recreating these classic calligraphies, bending and twisting the letters a little. Today, I have a style that is truly my own. What is rather paradoxical is that the more I got into calligraphy, the more I realized that I could never have done it without that French side of me. Without that, I could never have done what I’m doing now. Arabic calligraphy enabled me to reconnect those two sides of my identity.
GLH: For a person who doesn’t understand Arabic, all they see in your work are paintings. But they are much more than that, right?
eL Seed: Whatever I do on my canvases are messages. Messages that I come across in the streets. Whenever I move around, I feed off the local poems and writers, I feed off the country and the general atmosphere, and I draw a message connected to the subject. Then I translate it to Arabic. I also work on a message that is relevant locally but also one that has a universal dimension to it.
GLH: Could you tell us about one creation that means a lot to you?
eL Seed: There was one project that I worked on in Cairo, in the ragpickers’ quarters, where a community of about 70, 000 people lives, mostly of the Copt ethnicity. These men and women are responsible for collecting the garbage of Cairo every day. Then they bring everything to their area where they recycle them thanks to a system that they set up. It’s also due to the nature of the work, considered low-life and therefore they are marginalized and completely isolated, when in fact, thanks to them, more than 80% of what they collect are reused. Without them, Cairo would have been a garbage dump; few people know it, but they do, and they are proud of what they do.
To do this project, I had to convince the priest who is in charge of that community. I wanted to use a quote of a Coptic bishop who lived in the 4th century, named Athanasius of Alexandria, who said: “Quiconque veut voir la lumière du Soleil se doit de s’essuyer les yeux” (Whoever wants to see the light of the sun must first wipe their eyes), and that’s what I wrote in Arabic.
GLH: Are you always out to get across a message of tolerance?
eL Seed: Yes, a message of tolerance and peace. I’ve made it my mission to try and bring people and cultures together. Arabic calligraphy has helped me reconcile my two identities, and I want to use it as a tool to do the same for people, bring them, cultures and generations together.
GLH: Are you currently working on anything in particular?
eL Seed: Right now I am working on an exhibition that will premiere in Milan on November 18, and the theme is Love. This might sound very sentimental, but in Arabic, there are about 50 words that could mean Love. The word itself, “Hubun”, can be used to mean so many things.
There’s brotherly love, there’s the kind of love that is intoxicating, there’s the kind of love that makes you sad… The project is to go around the world and try to understand how people experience love. I have this feeling that we are always trying to standardize everything; in the way we dress, or the way we eat, and even the way we feel. Knowing that there are more than 50 ways you could think of the word “Love” in Arabic makes me feel like there must be more than 50 ways of experiencing love across various cultures. The idea is to go a bit everywhere and to ask people about their tales of love.
GLH: This sounds truly amazing. And finally, can you tell us a bit more about your homage to the people of Beirut following the recent explosion?
eL Seed: I went to Tunisia for three months because my workshop is there. After the explosion, I painted a wall as an homage to the people and the city of Beirut. I used a quote from Amine Maalouf who said: “On ne se console pas de la disparition de l’avenir” (We do not heal from the pain of losing the future). The quote is in fact longer, but I only picked that one sentence to convey that we might heal from the destruction of a country, but we won’t heal from the disappearance of its dream.
For more exclusive interviews, stay tuned to this space!