I follow the French Tunisian street artist eL Seed with a mild (i.e., non-stalker-like but seriously interested) obsession. He has named his technique calligrafiti (a marriage between graffiti and traditional Arabic calligraphy) and I would recognize it anywhere, even without his tag. The French fashion house Louis Vuitton recently unveiled Foulards d’Artistes, a collaboration between some of the world’s most beloved street artists, including el Seed. For his contribution, el Seed reinterpreted the classic silk square scarf and paid tribute to the poet Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) by transforming his poem, “Venice Carnival” into a calligrafiti masterpiece.
For those of you who don’t know the poem, it celebrates a period of real tolerance that took place long ago between the People of the Book (i.e., Muslims, Jews, and Christians) in Venice, Italy—something the poet who lived under occupation in Nazareth for most of his life, dreamed of but never saw before he passed away in 2011. While most poets writing in Arabic choose to express themselves in the classical, formal dialect (fusha), Taha Muhammad Ali wrote in the casual, informal dialect spoken on the street (amiya), which makes it even more fitting that eL Seed would choose to visually represent these verses.
The scarf itself calls up the question of whether poetry and street art, two mediums that are not moneymakers and are really “of the people and for the people”, have a place in the exclusive world of couture. Should anyone ever have to pay to read poetry or view graffiti? When I initially posted a photograph of the scarf on my blog’s Facebook page, street artists and poets wrote in with varying reactions. Several were irate that a poem could be reinterpreted in this manner, but the majority were in awe that a street artist would gain such international attention and make the effort to breathe new life into a classic poem and bring it to a whole new audience. I was honored to hear from eL Seed himself, who promised that he is planning on replicating the scarf on a wall in Venice so the public can have full access.
Today I felt like the luckiest poet in the world to have received my very own eL Seed scarf. The silk was so light it felt like a breeze lifting through my hands. The Louis Vuitton logo was unobtrusive and the fuchsia pink lettering was so bold it practically recited the poem out loud. I can’t think of a more personal gift to have received, and I can’t think of a more fitting accessory to wear to poetry readings and workshops in the fall. I’m dreaming of landing an interview with el Seed one day, but in the meantime, I’m loving Arabic Graffiti by Pascal Zoghbi and Don “Stone” Karl, a visual and linguistic exploration of street art in the Arab world featuring eL Seed’s work on the cover. Look out for my review of the book in the future.
To view more of eL Seed’s calligrafiti check out his website here.
Recommended Related Reading:
– Arabic Graffiti by Pascal Zoghbi and Don “Stone” Karl (Bilingual Edition, From Here to Fame, 2013)
– So What? : New and Selected Poems 1971 by Taha Muhammad Ali (English Translation, Bloodaxe Books, Ltd., 2007)