Walls of Freedom Documents the Art of the Egyptian Revolution

The Egyptian Revolution incited an outpouring of graffiti, most of it politically motivated and aimed at an audience of ordinary Egyptians. A multitude of artists including Ganzeer, Keizer, Ammar Abo Bakr, and the late Hesham Rizk, put their lives on the line to write on every surface available, from walls to military barricades and even army tanks. Basma Hamdy and Don 'Stone' Karl meticulously documented the street art that came before, amidst, and in the aftermath of the Revolution and ultimately collaborated with a large group of artists, writers, and intellectuals to publish “Walls of Freedom”, a powerful collection of photographs and poignant storytelling that makes the street art of the Egyptian Revolution accessible in English to a global audience.

Ammar Abo Bakr’s large scale portraits of weeping mothers clothed in black, mourning the loss of their sons. Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

Ammar Abo Bakr’s large scale portraits of weeping mothers clothed in black, mourning the loss of their sons. Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

Closeup of Ammar Abo Bakr’s walls on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

Closeup of Ammar Abo Bakr’s walls on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Basma Hamdy.

I interviewed the co-authors via email correspondence:

Danna Lorch: The most prominent feature of Egypt’s graffiti during and following the Revolution were the martyrdom murals commemorating those who had fallen. When did you first see these?

Basma Hamdy: The first time an actual Martyr Mural was created was when Ganzeer painted Islam Raafat in 2011. Ammar Abo Bakr was responsible for the most memorable Martyr Murals, the last one commemorating Hesham Rizk in July 2014, a young street artist who was found drowned in the Nile the same month.

The text on the mural reads,  “When I first opened my eyes, and before my mother knew me, they applied kohl to my eyes reaching my temples, so I can look like your statues.” Project by Haitan — painting by Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy by Sameh Ismael, poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan, sculptures by Alaa Abd El Hamid / Kasr El-Nil Street, ­Downtown / June –July 2013. Photo by Basma Hamdy

The text on the mural reads,  “When I first opened my eyes, and before my mother knew me, they applied kohl to my eyes reaching my temples, so I can look like your statues.” Project by Haitan — painting by Ammar Abo Bakr, calligraphy by Sameh Ismael, poetry by Ahmed Aboul-Hassan, sculptures by Alaa Abd El Hamid / Kasr El-Nil Street, ­Downtown / June –July 2013. Photo by Basma Hamdy

DL: In your opinion, what difference has graffiti made?

BH: Every historical event related to the revolution was captured on the walls. The walls became the real “newspaper” telling the story of the revolution and reiterating its importance.

Don 'Stone' Karl: For me, one of the most striking things I ever saw in relation to graffiti was the powerful way that mothers, siblings, or friends reacted to mural depicting their loved ones, some of whom we describe in the book.

Trompe-l’œil  by Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohamed Elmoshir, Layla Magued, Hanaa El Degham and team, Sheikh Rihan Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh.

Trompe-l’œil  by Ammar Abo Bakr, Mohamed Elmoshir, Layla Magued, Hanaa El Degham and team, Sheikh Rihan Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh.

DL: Do you believe that street art in Egypt is democratic?

BH: I think graffiti in general should be, or is democratic. It stems from the anarchic principle of revolt and rejection of authority. Perhaps in some respects graffiti has lost some of this edge due to commercialization and the entrance of mainstream pop culture.

In Egypt specifically, graffiti was created for all people. The ‘No Walls Campaign’ visually opened up the barrier walls erected by the military to impede pedestrian movement downtown; the artists used trompe l'oeil techniques to open the wall visually and this was aimed at everyone, from the shopkeepers to the residents. The bulk of graffiti was created in downtown Cairo and a lot of work was painted in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which is considered the aorta of Tahrir Square.

DK: The graffiti of the revolution was democratic in a sense that its role was to capture and carry the mood and grievances of those protesting. It was a direct extension of the chants and wishes of the people. You could see this especially in the very early days of the uprising when it seemed that virtually everyone felt the urge to write his thoughts on the walls of downtown and everything up to the tanks got covered with graffiti.

DL: Ganzeer is the artist whose tag has become best known outside of Egypt in association with the street art of the revolution. Why do you suppose that is the case?

BH: Ganzeer does not like to be called a street artist and I think that’s precisely why his work is effective. As a formally trained graphic designer, his aesthetic is reminiscent of comic illustrations and pop art, which traditionally challenged fine art and were characterized by graphic work that heavily drew on pop culture and advertising.

His poster ‘Mask of Freedom’, which was later a popular sticker, was a work that earned him an international reputation.The irony in borrowing advertising terminology and graphic design elements to express the human rights violations committed by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) caused the piece to go viral.

 Parallels between the long voting queues for the parliamentary elections and the long queues to refill gas cylinders inspired Hanaa El Degham to portray the tragedy that Egyptians suffer amidst the preoccupation with political wins. The extreme shortage of gas cylinders in some cities even triggered violent clashes between citizens.  Hanaa El Degham, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh

Parallels between the long voting queues for the parliamentary elections and the long queues to refill gas cylinders inspired Hanaa El Degham to portray the tragedy that Egyptians suffer amidst the preoccupation with political wins. The extreme shortage of gas cylinders in some cities even triggered violent clashes between citizens.  Hanaa El Degham, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo. Photo by Munir Sayegh

DL: What made you decide it was critical to document these walls before they were painted over?

BH: Somebody needed to tell the story accurately, truthfully and from every angle possible. History needed to be documented because we are aware that history is rewritten and fabricated easily in authoritarian states. The visual story of the revolution is an honest one that cannot be fabricated and erased. Thousands of years later we understand the Ancient Egyptians because of the visual legacy they left behind.

“Glory to the unidentified/unknown” written next to a colossal mural of the martyred Sayed Khaled, a homeless street child depicted with angel wings. The mural highlights the reality of street children in Egypt, homeless, unknown, and forgotten / Ammar Abo Bakr. Left: a military officer stands on a mountain of skulls, originally a poster for the Mad Graffiti Week in January 2012 / Ganzeer / 28 November 2013.

“Glory to the unidentified/unknown” written next to a colossal mural of the martyred Sayed Khaled, a homeless street child depicted with angel wings. The mural highlights the reality of street children in Egypt, homeless, unknown, and forgotten / Ammar Abo Bakr. Left: a military officer stands on a mountain of skulls, originally a poster for the Mad Graffiti Week in January 2012 / Ganzeer / 28 November 2013.

Good Ideas: To learn more about 'Walls of Freedom' and order a copy for yourself or a friend go here.

Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution. Don STONE Karl, Basmy Hamdy. From Here To Fame Publications, 2014

Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution. Don STONE Karl, Basmy Hamdy. From Here To Fame Publications, 2014

Credits: Images were all published in "Walls of Freedom" and are provided courtesy of the artists and photographers, as noted in each caption. A version of this post originally appeared in ArtSlant.

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The Changing Face of Public Art in Dubai: The Arab Fund for Art and Culture commissions 5 public artworks in historic Shindagha

A new project is changing Dubai’s understanding of public art, which up until this point, has largely been marked by decorative (read: pretty), sculptures installed at hotels or in wealthy areas of the city, such as the ultra-chic downtown. The Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC) commissioned five of the region’s most inventive artists to conceive works of public art that not only call for a deep viewing, but also directly interact with the historic Shindagha area of the city. The creekside neighborhood, which boasts the revamped Heritage Village, (soon to be a major tourist stop: you read it first here!) is one deep breath and a few steps away from Al Gudaiba metro station, which serves as the ventricle of public transportation for the emirate.

Works were unveiled along the Creek back in November and will remain installed through March, 2015. Participating artists include Monira al Qadiri from Kuwait, Sheikha Mazrou’ and Vikram Divecha from the UAE, Vartan Avakian from Lebanon and Doa Ali from Egypt. All work concerns the theme, “Invisible” and was thoughtfully curated by Amanda Abi Khalil.

Deer in the headlights - Doa Aly

Deer in the headlights - Doa Aly

Deer in the headlights 2 - Doa Aly

Deer in the headlights 2 - Doa Aly

I took the metro down to Al Gudaiba and made my way through Heritage Village (where I was surprised to come face to face with a grazing camel), got charmingly lost, and ultimately discovered a series of helpful signs pointing me in the direction of the project.

I got lost and came across this camel grazing in a sand lot near Heritage village with the city's futuristic skyscrapers beyond

I got lost and came across this camel grazing in a sand lot near Heritage village with the city's futuristic skyscrapers beyond

Though I’ve lived in Dubai for three years, I was unaware of the tranquil corniche that winds through Shindagha, and is dappled with tourists, fishermen, locals, and laborers. It shows great vision that AFAC selected this part of the city as the site of these installations, as I’m certain that many of the area’s residents would not otherwise encounter art in their daily lives. I truly hope that this first foray into accessible public art will mark the beginning of a lasting trend in the UAE.

Then I reached the creek and discovered a peaceful corniche that I never knew existed. The serenity was a sharp cry for the other side of the creek, which is bustling with tourists, fishermen, dhows, and a souk

Then I reached the creek and discovered a peaceful corniche that I never knew existed. The serenity was a sharp cry for the other side of the creek, which is bustling with tourists, fishermen, dhows, and a souk

Just when I was about to give up, I came across this helpful sign, and that was when my public art walk truly began

Just when I was about to give up, I came across this helpful sign, and that was when my public art walk truly began

I was particularly struck by Doa Ali’s sculpture, ‘Deer in Headlights’, which is an interpretation of last year’s news story featuring a wild oryx spotted darting along the median on Dubai’s Palm Island amidst rush hour traffic. Strikingly spartan, the skull of an oryx plays upon the lines between mythology and modernity, conservation, and progress.

Doa Aly's 'Deer in Headlights'

Doa Aly's 'Deer in Headlights'

Another view of Doa Aly's 'Deer in Headlights'

Another view of Doa Aly's 'Deer in Headlights'

The inspiration behind Vartan Avakian's public art piece

The inspiration behind Vartan Avakian's public art piece

The sketch that led to 'Stand Here' by Shaikha Al Mazrou

The sketch that led to 'Stand Here' by Shaikha Al Mazrou

I was shocked to find myself admiring the sheer beauty of Monira Qadiri’s ‘Alien Technology’, which essentially presents an enlarged drill bit painted in sultry iridescent tones to invoke the Gulf’s history as a pearl diving economy, while calling into question the foreign influence of oil technology. Who knew a drill bit could be transformed into such an appealing and provocative sculpture?

Monira Al Qadiri's 'Alien Technology'

Monira Al Qadiri's 'Alien Technology'

Vikram Divecha (an artist whose career I’ve closely followed for two years and hope to feature one day on the blog), engaged with the city’s construction culture by surrounding an installation of boulders half-concealed behind a fence that mocked the typical construction sites found in Dubai. It was a delight to be invited into a space that is typically forbidden.

A shot of the boulders in UAE rock quarries, the inspiration behind Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

A shot of the boulders in UAE rock quarries, the inspiration behind Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

I had the chance to briefly interview Amanda Abi Khalil about the project and here is what we discussed:

DL: Do you think that this project may change the way that Dubai residents understand and engage with public art?

AAK: I think that Dubai can foster new aesthetics and discourse on public art, since it is a new city in constant definition and re-definition of its public spaces. Beyond taking artworks outside of the museum, public art carries a set of aesthetics, methodologies and complex procedures. With this project we tried to challenge the preconceived ideas and characteristics of public art by calling into question scale; modes of intervention, site-specificity, and the notions of monumentality and temporality.

Public art can take many forms and shapes but it's most relevant when it is commissioned to be site-specific, responding to a context as much as this same context is expected to respond back to it. The commissioned artists worked on different concepts inspired by the proposed theme ''InVisible". 

Through the mediation tools deployed on site and beyond (bi-lingual texts, barcodes, social media and the press), the works call for interpretation, astonishment, curiosity and reflection beyond the aesthetic potential they present. We hope that this commission will change the way Dubai residents engage with public art by showing that artworks can resonate in public space and public life beyond the ''beautification'' and ''decoration'' aspect one primarily thinks of. 

The makeshift barricade surrounding Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

The makeshift barricade surrounding Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

DL: Why did you opt to install these works on the Creek near Heritage Village rather than in another Dubai neighborhood?

AAK: We first started to work on the artists’ concepts before having locations confirmed, which was really challenging for the artists. Then we tried as much as possible to get the permits for the ideal locations. This second step took us almost three months of scouting locations and negotiating authorizations. 

Shindagha was one of the sites we were hoping for, since it had open spaces and closed areas, a strong aspect of public life with diverse inhabitants and visitors ranging from the customers of the cafés, tourists who visit the Heritage area, and residents who practice they daily sports and activities on the corniche.

One of the works has been installed outside Shindagha; Shaikha Al Mazrou's concept was very relevant to Al Jalila Cultural Centre for Children's mission and philosophy. The organization decided to host the work at their center’s entrance, even before their official opening.

The meditative boulders that make up Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

The meditative boulders that make up Vikram Divecha's 'Boulder Plot'

Good Ideas: For more information about The Arab Fund for Art and Culture’s projects, as well as details about the five commissioned public artworks go here.

Image Credits: Unless otherwise specified, the images are my own.

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Underground Art: Dubai's Industrial Area of Al Quoz

I was asked to write about Dubai's emerging arts and design scene for the cARTel Magazine. Set in a warehouse deep in Alserkal Avenue, The cARTel is a design space that teeters adeptly between fashion and art, and they are known for introducing local and regional designers (like Maria Iqbal, Bint Thani, and Reemami) to a wider, curious audience. Read on as I introduce Al Quoz, nearly get lost in a dark alley, drink too much coffee, and visit some of my favorite galleries and concept spaces…

The cARTel Magazine PDF medium-64

8pm in Al Quoz. Not a star in the sky. The night is a foggy blue, a shade deep enough for the French artist Yves Klein to have dipped his paintbrush in before whisking it thickly against the stretched linen canvas. The nearest bright light shines from a Pakistani cafeteria, an after work meeting place for the city’s workers, some of whom live in the immense labor camps just a few kilometers away.

I pull into Alserkal Avenue slowly, turn right down an alleyway, the car’s wheels knocking along on uneven asphalt. The surrounding warehouses appear locked and deserted. Shadows of dumpsters, old 4x4s, and steel piping look menacing here at night, like a set from an action film. I’m all but expecting a masked martial artist to somersault out in front of the car and ambush me here. I ignore my overactive imagination and step gingerly into the alleyway. It took me months of getting disoriented among the labyrinth of streets and circles in the surrounding industrial area of Al Quoz until I could smoothly navigate my way here.

You can read the rest of the article below:

The cARTel Magazine PDF medium-38

The cARTel Magazine PDF medium-39

The cARTel Magazine PDF medium-61

The cARTel Magazine PDF medium-43

Here is more information about the galleries, concept spaces, and cafes I mentioned in the post:

The cARTel magazine can be picked up at the cARTel, Virgin Megastores, and at various arts and design spaces around Dubai

The cARTel magazine can be picked up at the cARTel, Virgin Megastores, and at various arts and design spaces around Dubai

The cARTel
http://www.thecartel.me
Tip: Check out Bint Thani's latest collection, inspired by Cubism and Dubai architecture

Alserkal Avenue
http://www.alserkalavenue.ae
Tip: Bring a friend and go for a coffee at the A4 Space, before gallery hopping in the remarkable complex

Ayyam Gallery
http://www.ayyamgallery.com
Tip: Check out the Young Collector's Auctions for original, reasonably affordable art from the Middle East

Carbon 12
http://carbon12dubai.com
Tip: Ask to see the smaller works in the back office, where you can view a wall of gems by established artists

The Zoo Skatepark
http://www.igniteextreme.com
Tip: Bring your helmet and your courage

Tom & Serg
http://www.tomandserg.com
Tip: Order the daily cordial, bring a notebook, and sketch or write a poem upstairs while eavesdropping on other people's conversations

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the cARTel and Desert Fish

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The Djerbahood Project: Street Art in Dialogue with the People of Tunisia

In much of the Middle East, graffiti is regarded as a form of vandalism—a subversive crime to be scrubbed away or painted over and concealed. However, that outdated understanding may be shifting due to the impact of the wildly popular Djerbahood Project. From July-August, 2014, Djerba, an ancient Tunisian island, recently welcomed around 150 of the world’s best known and emerging street artists, to bring new life to the whitewashed walls of the tiny, traditional village of Erriadh.

The Djerbahood project was organized by the Paris-based Galerie Itinerrance under the direction of Tunisian artist and gallery director Mehdi Ben Cheikh, who wanted to show the outside world that freedom of expression, tourism, and street art have blossomed in the wake of the eventful January 2011 Jasmine Revolution, which marked the first chapter of the Arab Spring.

One of the charming blue doors that dot the whitewashed traditional village. Image courtesy of Galerie Itinerrance.

One of the charming blue doors that dot the whitewashed traditional village. Image courtesy of Galerie Itinerrance.

The Djerbahood project brought together some of the biggest names in street art from 30 countries in a collaboration that marks one of the largest meetings of contemporary street artists to-date. Participating artists included C215, eL Seed, Phlegm, ROA, and a stable of others. Djerba is home to active communities of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who all live in simple harmony, and the artists engaged in conversations with Erriadh’s residents, many of whom provided the visitors with music, warm dinners, and even the walls of their family homes to use as a canvas. Most of the murals engaged directly with the island’s history and culture, such as the octopus that Belgian artist ROA painted with a head formed from a local mosque’s dome, or the mural of a Berber woman by Dubai-based Myneandyours, which celebrates the island’s legacy in the ‘Odyssey’ as the home of the mystical Lotus Eaters.

Add Fuel - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Add Fuel - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Add Fuel: Diego Machado is known for his decorative tiles, tromp l'oeil, and imaginary characters. His murals remind me of walks past traditionally tiled buildings in the hilly city of Lisbon.

The village of Erriadh on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Image courtesy of Galeria Itinerrance.

The village of Erriadh on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Image courtesy of Galeria Itinerrance.

Curiot - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Curiot - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Street artist and painter Curiot (Favio Martinez) is known for the mystical beasts he brings to life on the wall. Think Greek mythology's man-killing Minator meets "Where the Wild Things Are."

Dan23- Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Dan23- Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Dan 23 paints portraits on walls, each of which is intimately connected to the lyrics or emotions of a single song.

eL Seed - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

eL Seed - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Tunisian street artist eL Seed is known for his calligraffiti, which marries Arabic calligraphy with graffiti. eL Seed just wrapped up a year-long residency at Tashkeel in Dubai, culminating in a solo show titled 'Declaration.' You can read our recent interview on ArtSlant here.

Faith47 - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Faith47 - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

When I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, I had a Faith47 mural on my rundown street and it's deep call for justice is what go me into street art in the first place. The soulful spirituality of Faith47's work is what gets to me every time.

Know Hope - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Know Hope - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Tel Aviv-based artist Know Hope sings the blues on the walls he tags, often incorporating texts into his work. Interestingly, some of his street-art inspired mixed media has been auctioned by Sotheby's.

Liliwenn - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Liliwenn - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

I'm still learning about French street artist Liliwenn, but I sure admire what I see so far.

Monica Canilao - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Monica Canilao - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Monica Canilao comes from Oakland in California, a town which marks the center of Northern California's West Side hip hop and graffiti movement.

Mosko - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Mosko - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

MOSKO is a street artist and graffiti writer from Paris, France. Recent work featured a number of wild animals poised in observation on walls in urban centers. Wouldn't you like to walk by a life-size giraffe on your way to work?

Roa - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance.jpg

Roa - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance.jpg

Roa is a Belgium-born artist who is known for his walls which typically feature wildlife native to the city in which he is painting at any given time. The animals are often on the endangered species list.

Rodolphe Cintorino - Copyrights Mehdi Ben Cheikh - Galerie Itinerrance

Rodolphe Cintorino - Copyrights Mehdi Ben Cheikh - Galerie Itinerrance

Rodolphe Cintorino is a mixed media artist who experiments with installations, iconography, and performances. His installation added a 3-D element to the Djerbahood Project

Saner - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Saner - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

SANER is a Mexican graffiti artist who has cleverly branched out into other mediums including toys, illustrations and street art inspired works indoors. He recently had a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Luis Potosi, which you can read about in Juxtapoz Magazine.

Shoof and BomK- Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Shoof and BomK- Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Swoon - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Swoon - Copyrights Aline Deschamps - Galerie Itinerrance

Connecticut-born Swoon has built a name with large scale wheat paste prints and paper cutouts, and has been on the street art scene since the late 90's.

Good Ideas: The Djerbahood project has been beautifully documented in numerous international publications. For the most thorough library of images and stories, visit the dedicated Djerbahood project site here. For more information about Galerie Itinerrance, a street art gallery in Paris that organized the Djerbahood project, go here.

Credits: A shorter version of this post was published in ArtSlant. All images are provided courtesy of Galerie Itinerrance, the artist, and photographer, as specified in captions.

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A Street Artist Tackles Sculpture: In the Studio with eL Seed

Street artist eL Seed introduced calligraffiti (a marriage of traditional Arabic calligraphy and contemporary graffiti) to the Arab world in 2012 when he famously painted a Koranic verse calling for tolerance onto the façade of the Jara Mosque’s minaret in his ancestral town of Gabes, Tunisia. Although his work is not political, eL Seed rapidly became the high profile poster artist for Arabic graffiti, with a collaboration with Louis Vuitton, a public art project painting 73 meters of freeway underpasses in Doha, publication of a first book, and most recently a one-year residency at Tashkeel, a powerhouse arts hub in Dubai founded by Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum.

At the conclusion of his Dubai days, eL Seed opened a solo show, Declaration, in which his trademark pink curves have been transformed into three-dimensional, interactive sculptures that wind throughout Tashkeel’s gallery space, spelling out an Arabic verse by the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. The poem, intended as the writer’s pledge to adore his wife into old age, serves as eL Seed’s declaration to continue to breathe new life into the traditional art of calligraphy.

The day after the show’s mobbed opening, I met eL Seed for a steaming cup of Emirati chai in his small studio on the second floor of Tashkeel. Here is how the studio visit unfolded:

eL Seed in Doha as photographed by Sueraya Shaheen for 'Encounters'

eL Seed in Doha as photographed by Sueraya Shaheen for 'Encounters'

11

Danna Lorch: You always write in a particular shade of pink. What makes pink your color?

eL Seed: It’s Pantone 219 C. When you see calligraphy it’s always in old school colors like black, silver, and gold. My work is a reflection of my generation and we’re trying to take it in a new direction. Pink represents that.

Wet paint including Pantone 219 C

Wet paint including Pantone 219 C

DL: Is it a contradiction to pay a studio visit to a street artist when your real studio is the street?

eS: This studio was more like my stockroom. It was a place to meet the other artists based here. I actually used larger outdoor spaces around Tashkeel when I wanted to work. 

DL: What are you tired of being asked?

eS: This stupid question about the Arab Spring. I’m Tunisian and I paint in Arabic so people always think that my work is about The Revolution, but I wasn’t even in Tunis during those days. I just made a book called Lost Walls, shot in Tunisia that doesn’t have anything to do with politics. Sometimes journalists impose an agenda and try to turn me into this romantic character.

A street art inspired canvas in progress

A street art inspired canvas in progress

DL: I was expecting this show to present two-dimensional calligraffiti on canvas, but you took a risk and didn’t play it safe at all.

eS: The point of the residency was to try something new and [Sheikha] Lateefa used to look at my work and tease, “This is easy for you.” The minaret in [in Tunis] in 2012 was my first large scale work on a wall and I’ve been doing that ever since. People were expecting more of the same.

Declaration at Tashkeel, Installation Shot

Declaration at Tashkeel, Installation Shot

DL: How did you actually create Declaration?

eS: The whole process was challenging. The time frame was really short and I ended up bringing 30 carpenters and two trucks of wood to Tashkeel. We basically brought the factory here. We cut the letters in 3D, made them fit together, coated them in resin and fiberglass. This was a purely experimental attempt.

Exterior Shot of 'Declaration' installed in one of Tashkeel's outdoor spaces where eL Seed often worked

Exterior Shot of 'Declaration' installed in one of Tashkeel's outdoor spaces where eL Seed often worked

DL: There was not a spray can in sight.

eS: That was my goal for this show. As a street artist I want to bring sculptures to public places too, just drill the piece into the concrete. Maybe someone will come the next day and steal it, but that’s just part of the game.

Courtyard shot of Tashkeel

Courtyard shot of Tashkeel

DL: You sometimes refer to your art as invoking Arab pride. What do you mean by that?

eS: We have such a deep culture and history but with globalization we lost a bit of who we are and where we are coming from. When I visited Saudi Arabia I met some of the first graffiti artists there but none of them were painting in Arabic. They told me Arabic graffiti doesn’t exist.

I asked: What are you doing guys? You have to be proud of what you’ve got, using your culture and everything that is around you to tell your story. Why would you be in the Middle East but try to do what people are doing in the Bronx?

DL: You’re using your calligraffiti to reconnect people to their culture through Arabic poetry too. How does poetry connect to your art?

eS: When I was 15, my friends and I were walking back from the sea in Tunis. I saw an old man walking along the sea reciting old poetry from memory for 10 minutes straight. I was so impressed that I wanted to learn to do that. As Arab people, poetry has always been part of our culture and is the most beautiful way to express a feeling. The Arabic script itself—just the shape of it alone—is poetry. 

An unfinished experiment found in eL Seed's studio

An unfinished experiment found in eL Seed's studio

DL: You’re leaving Dubai in January and packing up this studio. Which three things will you put in your suitcase and take to your next studio?

eS: I’m not that attached to things but I will pack the first small sculpture I did for this show, the drawing my young daughter made of me painting the mosque’s minaret in Tunis in 2012, and a volume of poetry by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, gifted to me by Sheikha Lateefa when I first arrived at Tashkeel.

Declaration, Installation shot at Tashkeel

Declaration, Installation shot at Tashkeel

Good Ideas: 'Declaration' runs at Tashkeel 20 November-27 December, 2014. Gallery Address: Nad El Sheba, Dubai.

Photos: All images courtesy of the photographer Sueraya Shaheen

Credits: A version of this feature was originally posted on ArtSlant

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