Though he has no formal training in Arabic calligraphy, graffiti artist eL SEED creates work recalling classic Arabic Kufic script, which is marked by straight elongated lines, sharp angles, and bold circular forms. In this calligraphic tradition the length of a vowel can be measured in a heartbeat, and eL SEED captures its staccato energy in gigantic scripts writ large on the streets of France, Canada, and Tunisia. Born as part of the Arab Diaspora in France, eL SEED made the streets of Paris his first canvas and later endeavored to teach himself Arabic calligraphy. Feeling alienated from both his ostensible French and Tunisian identities, he brings the false dichotomies of hyphenated identity to the forefront of his work, calling for unity among communities that embody such modern transnational complexities. eL SEED has played a fundamental role in the emerging Arabic graffiti movement, especially in the wake of the Arab uprisings. His work was recently on exhibit in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum during the cultural festival Nights of Ramadan.
Max Nesterak: After your exhibition at Berlin's largest museum for classical antiquities, the Pergamon, you're already back at work in Tunsia. What are you up to? Can you talk more about the current projects you're working on and what the current climate is like for graffiti artists in Tunisia over a year after the uprising?
eL SEED: I just completed a very big mural project in my hometown of Gabes in southern Tunisia. For three weeks I was painting both sides of Jarra Mosque's minaret -- the tallest minaret in Tunisia. It was a very difficult project in terms of execution and organization, and was challenging for me on a personal level. The mural painting started around the beginning of Ramadan and I completed it just before Eid, which marks the end of the month of fasting, on the 17th of August. Part of the difficulty of the project was linked to the climate in Tunisia surrounding art, politics and religion. Right now, it seems that most of the visible art coming from Tunisian artists is superficially controversial -- seeking to provoke in an immature fashion -- and doesn't actually address the real problems underlying our civil society.
MN: Describing your art as a mixture of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti, you have written: "It is the product of a double marginality, that of an oriental art seeking a voice in the occidental world, and that of street art struggling to legitimize its presence on the contemporary art scene. This duality enables the reconciling of two supposedly opposing worlds and two supposedly clashing cultures." This was at work at the Pergamon, which is not exactly an entry point into the contemporary art scene, but certainly a place of contact between East and West. It’s an incredible achievement. What does it mean to the Arabic graffiti movement to find its work housed in a place like the Pergamon?
eS: I can only speak for myself as an individual artist, and I can say that I was extremely honored to have been a part of such an exhibit. I feel that Arabic graffiti is something that is growing very fast, and to have that recognition on such a scale as the Pergamon is incredible for the movement. I hope that the stature that this exhibit has given Arabic graffiti will encourage people to see this type of art as legitimate and inspiring, not just for youth or for those within the Hip Hop scene.
MN: You were born in the Arabic diaspora in Paris and then moved to Montreal. So you've learned classic Arabic calligraphy and picked up Western styles of graffiti. Mixing the two puts you at the fringe of both societies in that both graffiti and breaking from traditional calligraphy styles can be seen as subversive acts. What would seem to create further alienation has actually been the foundation on which you've built your identity. Can you talk more about why you were drawn to what is deemed "illegitimate" by both the Western art world and the Arab world and why going to the fringe has been the best place to create yourself?
eS: To be honest, none of my artistic choices were conscious in the beginning. It all began in a very visceral way -- I just felt my way along -- and it was only until later, once I had come to fuse calligraphy and graffiti, that I became more conscious in my art. Reflecting on where I've come from, I could say that my experience as the son of immigrant parents in a country which profiles Muslims and Arabs greatly affected my pull toward "the fringe." Being in France, I was never fully legitimately "French," and when visiting Tunisia, I was never legitimately "Tunisian" -- considered an ex-pat and part of the migrant "bourgeoisie." When you stand outside the realms of any pre-formed identity, you are better able to stand back, analyze, and re-create with what you have observed.
MN: Like you say, there is an undeniable proliferation of negative stereotypes of Arab peoples in the Western world. And while Westerners normally want to attribute graffiti to disenfranchised youth, violent gangs, and alternative groups, graffiti has given you a voice which plays a particularly important role in the Arabic diaspora, especially following the Arab uprisings. What does the reclamation of public space in the West do for its perception of the Near East? Is it an affirmation of an Arabic identity or a creation of a new identity?
eS: In my opinion, it is both. Identity is a very personal thing, yet it is publicly affirmed and affronted. I think first and foremost it gives visibility to an authentic voice -- one that comes directly from the camel's mouth, so to speak.
MN: The video shown at the Pergamon was truly inspirational. It followed the story of a mural being painted in Tunisia, and this wall was the origin of incredible community building. At the talk, one Berliner street artist applauded the acceptance of street art as a unifier of communities. Indeed, Houda Kassatly, who wrote about calligraphy on trucks in Lebanon in the publication Arabic Graffiti wrote that "calligraphy is a barometer of public life, social relations." Here we see a kind of break from the Western tradition of graffiti being anti-social because in Egypt, Tunisia, and Beruit, graffiti seems to be less a point of subversion as it is a point of confirmation in building a new social structure. How do you attribute what seems to be an overwhelming acceptance of street art?
eS: It seems to me that street art became more visible to the mainstream in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon within a certain context. Street art is now associated with concepts such as "freedom," "democracy," "dignity," and so on -- all the concepts which drove people onto the streets. This is a very different context from the development of graffiti in the US and Europe, so it is not surprising to me that the reaction from the wider public is different in these countries.
MN: Western graffiti culture is steeped in competition and posturing, from pioneering the most dangerous places to laying hold to particular walls by covering up another artist’s work. You want to see a familial spirit of collaboration between artists. Where does this collective spirit come from?
eS: You can't be in collaboration with other artists if you are the only one wishing it -- it has to be something that is willed from all sides. I'm not sure any one thing makes a movement collaborative; it still confuses me why in certain domains competition is negative and destructive, and why in others, it becomes inspirational and brotherly/sisterly. Ask me again in a few years and I may have a better answer!
MN: You talk frequently about the need for Arabic graffiti artists to form their own tradition outside American/Western influences -- which is one of the origins of modern Arabic graffiti. Can you describe in more detail how the Arab tradition of graffiti diverges from Western traditions beyond just the language difference?
eS: It is difficult to differentiate between cultural influences with globalization normalizing and promoting one dominant vision of the world. The Arab tradition of graffiti is different in the sense that its creators come from a different type of consciousness, bring their own culturally-saturated vision of art and expression, and struggle with different issues. Hip Hop comes back to authenticity; what counts is an honest analysis of your situation -- yourself, your family, your community, and so on. Reflecting on your own situation brings a different purpose to your art than simply imitating and reproducing what has already been done.
MN: You keep a really active Facebook page, blog, and twitter account. This was particularly effective during Mad Graffiti Week in January to make it a unified, global movement in support of the revolution in Egypt and the other Arab countries. Indeed, people credit Twitter as one of the main tools that made the revolution possible. How do you and other Arab graffiti artists use these tools to create and disseminate work?
eS: I use these tools to try and reach people who otherwise wouldn't know about what I do. It's a mode of communication with the whole world, rather than staying within your immediate circles. You can connect with other communities in a very fast and effective way. However, these are tools and they only serve a purpose if connections are made and taken beyond the computer screen.
(Image on top: eL SEED, Tradition and Modernity, Sharjah, U.A.E., 2011; © photo: J.P. Desjardins)