eL Seed, a Tunisian street artist whose work combines Arabic calligraphy and street painting, is making big waves in the street art scene. Although street art was, and probably still is, a notorious and controversial topic, eL Seed struggles to cement this form of art in the industry. With that in mind, he no longer tags his name on walls, preferring to highlight his work instead of his name.
Khaleejesque caught up with the burgeoning artist to learn more about his participation in various influential cultural programs (including a book titled Arabic Calligraffiti and the Sharjah Islamic Festival) and to discuss the ideas driving his work.
Tell us about yourself and your education.
My formal education was in business, and for the most part art was a hobby. Since my youth, I dabbled in graffiti, both in France and Tunisia, but I had never been very serious about it as an art form. When I arrived in North America in 2006, I began to get more involved in the street art scene. After meeting the artist Hest 1, I was inspired to combine graffiti with my love for Arabic calligraphy, and began developing a style that I wanted to further explore. It was through this period that I decided to concentrate fully on managing an artistic career.
How was your experience in the Sharjah Islamic Festival?
The festival takes place once a year. Basically one month packed full of exhibitions, performances, conferences and workshops. It was an intense experience! I had left Montreal with a desire to push my artistic boundaries. I wanted to honor the Festival for inviting me to such an amazing event and had a vision of combining different art forms in one piece: sculpture, calligraphy and graffiti.
I worked 4 full days on the mural/sculpture along with my associate JP Desjardins who documented the whole process. Beyond being a simple documentation, the objective of the video was to present the entire process step-by-step. I’ve begun to realize how important it is to share one's own experience, methods and work with a wide audience.
How do tradition and newness work together in your work?
‘Tradition’ is a word with many interpretations and it carries both negative and positive connotations depending on the usage. The narrative used in common discourse in North America and Western Europe understands ‘tradition’ in opposition to ‘modernity’. Through my art I try to take a fresh look at this false dichotomy simply by using ‘modern’ graffiti styles to paint ‘traditional’ calligraphies. It’s quite a simple concept but I think it gets the message across.
The orientalization of calligraphy is part of a larger paradigm, explained very well by the late Edward Said. Instead of perceiving Arabic calligraphy as a commodified exotic art form, I try to show people that calligraphy is also ‘Western’, or ‘Occidental’ by using it in conjunction with graffiti. In other words, I encourage people from different backgrounds to connect personally with calligraphy by using a medium familiar to all in the ‘West’: graffiti.
What are some of the most surprising responses you’ve gotten to your work?
I have always been, and still am, surprised at the enthusiasm people have shown. I thank God that what I love doing has found a place in people’s hearts, and I am surprised every day at the kind, supportive responses of my art.
However, there have been shocking responses. I, perhaps naively, entered the world of graffiti and calligraphy with high expectations about community. But a few responses from other artists showed me the ugly competitive side of the art world.
In reflecting on all the work you’ve done, which piece or collaboration are you most proud of?
I think the piece I have been most proud of is the one I did in my home town – Teboulbou in the south of Tunisia. It was a 2-day workshop with 30 youth ranging from 5 to 17 years. It was the process itself that made me proud of this particular piece, and of course the fact that I was able to contribute to the culture of my own community.
The process was a major learning experience for me. It opened my eyes to different perspectives and reminded me about the power art can have on people. Two years later, the kids still talk about their experience with the Youth Club Director.
How did you get involved with the book “Arabic Graffiti”?
I was first approached by the Director of ‘From Here to Fame’, Don Karl aka Stone. I was asked to send photos of my work along with some texts explaining my artistic approach and philosophy. I ended up writing one text on Arabic graffiti as a quest for identity and a second text on the proverbial tradition, which have both greatly informed my work over the past few years. It was also great honor to have designed the calligraphy for the book cover.
What other cultural forces do you pay attention to for your artistic inspiration?
I can’t say that any one thing inspires me. It generally tends to be a heated conversation with a friend, talks with my wife, current events, talks and books. Many artists have also inspired me. Although this is something quite taboo in many artistic circles, I think it is important to say this and to give credit to those whose work has inspired yours. Remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ’It’s not where you take things from – It’s where you take them to’”. Basically, I take inspiration as it comes and I’ve learned that it won’t come if you look for it – it has to find you.
What advice do you have for aspiring street artists in the Middle East?
I am surprised and slightly disheartened to see that when I go to the Middle East and North Africa many young artists are using English or ‘Western’ Graffiti nicknames. The interesting thing is that these same artists are as surprised to see me, a Muslim-Arab artist born and raised in the West, painting in Arabic.
To anyone, I would say be yourself and utilize your stories to inform your art. Be authentic, in the hip-hop sense of being connected to your roots. Each Arab country has such a deep and rich history and many modern-day social issues to tackle. It would be a great shame to ignore this.
Today in the Middle East, when you speak with the youth about calligraphy, many will say that it's an old school art form for old people. Through graffiti, I feel I am carrying cultural traditions into my modern reality whilst keeping my heritage alive.
– Plus Aziz
Photos courtesy of eL Seed