French Tunisian street artist eL Seed is known for his “calligraffiti” style, which blends traditional Arabic calligraphy with the art of graffiti. His colourful, larger than life spray painted murals, voicing his thoughts, opinions and ideals can be seen on walls around the world. His intricate compositions bring out the beauty of the words and the emotions behind them, while also conveying a sense of movement and rhythm.
The artist recently completed a year-long residency at Tashkeel during which he experimented with new ways of expressing himself. His first solo exhibition in Dubai, “Declaration”, marks a new direction in his practice, with the works liberated from the walls and transformed into monumental three-dimensional fibreglass sculptures.
The entire body of work is inspired by a romantic poem by Nizar Qabbani. The poet’s words come alive in eL Seed’s sculptures, weaving in and out of the walls, hugging the corners, climbing up to the ceiling and gliding on the floor with the graceful curves and loops of the letters enveloping viewers in a world of beauty and strong emotions.
The artist spoke to Weekend Review about the development of his unique style and its evolution during his stay in Dubai. Excerpts:
What was the thought process behind this new direction in your work?
I came to this residency with the idea of getting out of my comfort zone and doing something different. I wanted to do three dimensional works for a long time, and I am happy that Tashkeel provided me with the facilities I needed and a wonderful support team. The idea behind this work is to free the letters from the two-dimensional surface of the wall so that viewers can interact with the calligraphy and become part of the conversation between the poem, the language, the form and me.
Why did you select this poem by Qabbani?
The poet is telling his wife that despite the passage of time, she will always remain young and beautiful in his poems and his words. I feel the same way about calligraphy and have used the poet’s words to make a public declaration of my abiding love for this ancient art.
Why did you make the sculptures pink?
The colours generally associated with Arabic calligraphy are black, gold and silver. But in my work, I have always tried to break this stereotype. This particular shade of pink is a signature colour that I often use in my wall murals.
How did you develop this unique “calligraffiti” style?
My parents are from Tunisia, but I was born and raised in Paris and spoke only French. Like most youngsters from my social background, I was involved in the hip-hop street culture, and expressed myself through break dancing and graffiti. But as I became older, I felt the need to connect with my North African roots and search for my identity. So, I started learning Arabic, and that is when I discovered calligraphy. I wanted to bring that into my graffiti, and taught myself this art without really understanding the rules.
Gradually I developed my own style, separating each letter as is done in Western style graffiti. Although I was always interested in art, I went to business school and was working as a business consultant, doing graffiti only on the weekends. But I hated my job, and calligraphy became my saviour because the response to my calligraffiti gave me the confidence to quit my job and become an artist. My unique style is about reclaiming my identity and being an ambassador for my culture.
How do you choose the words in your works?
As a street artist, I paint walls in different places and then I leave. But the work stays with the people of that place. So, my first priority is that the words must be relevant to the local community. But I also try to say something with a universal dimension that people across the world can relate to. I want to build bridges through my art and the words are a way to open a conversation with the public.
One of my largest murals is a message of unity and tolerance painted on a 47 metre high minaret in Tunisia. My murals in Rio de Janeiro, including one on a rooftop on top of a hill, were inspired by the words of a Brazilian poetess from the favelas. And in Saudi Arabia, I used words from a Bedouin poem to bring awareness about the preservation of Saudi historical heritage.
How do people who cannot read Arabic relate with your work?
Calligraphy should be seen as abstract art. My calligraffiti appeals to everybody because the Arabic script speaks to the soul before it speaks to the eye, and even those who cannot read the words can feel the emotion and be touched by it. My work is about emotion, and about beautification of the streets.
How was your experience of living and working in Dubai?
It was nice to be part of the community. I enjoyed conducting workshops on street art at some schools here and creating murals along with the students, who amazed me with their enthusiasm and talent. It was also a great opportunity to develop my studio practice, and experiment with three dimensional works.
“Declaration” is presented in collaboration with the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and will run at Tashkeel until December 27.