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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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