insight - eL Seed
Written by Peter Gould
Occupation - Artist
‘Calligraffiti’ artist eL Seed explores a fusion of Arabic calligraphy and contemporary street art. No longer the domain of urban laneways, his artwork attracts galleries and museums around the world.
eL Seed is Tunisian by lineage but was born in France, and now lives in Canada. His work expresses and reflects a search for identity that resonates with many young people growing up with a spectrum of cultural influences. He discusses where it all began. “I started drawing and sketching at a very young age. My dream was to become an illustrator, and I remember mostly drawing portraits and cartoon storyboards. Calligraphy was another art form I became passionate about – drawing inspiration from classic calligraphers. Growing up in the suburbs of Paris during the eighties, it wasn’t long before hip-hop began influencing my art. Graffiti became my primary artistic outlet during the nineties but took a back seat to my career as I stepped out of university.
“When I moved to North America – the birthplace of graffiti – I reconnected with my art. I began painting on a regular basis with a French graffiti artist who was also living in North America at the time – Hest1. During this time I experimented with Arabic calligraphy, starting with my name ‘eL Seed’. I quickly moved away from writing my name to writing messages that I thought could trigger curiosity and reflection in the viewer. My hyphenated identity as a European-Muslim-Arab means I am politicised without necessarily wanting to be, and because I call upon my Tunisian roots and use Arabic script when I paint, my art also becomes politicised. Due to this, I felt it was my duty to make my message heard, to perhaps try and balance negative stereotypes. I discovered the best way for me to do this was to become a full-time artist, getting involved in cultural events and getting my art ‘out there’.”
Oryx: What is the relationship between your work and traditional Islamic calligraphy?
I don’t call what I do ‘calligraphy’ because the term is anchored within certain structures and rules that I don’t abide by. Arabic calligraphy is a very specific art form that requires a certificate from a certified calligraphy master, who obtained theirs from another master, and so on. I haven’t had any training from a master but traditional calligraphy has always inspired my work in different ways. For example, I do not paint my name on any artwork, rather putting the message before the artist the way traditional calligraphers would have.
Oryx: What types of reactions do you get to your approach?
Some calligraphy ‘purists’ have discouraged me from what they see as corrupting a centuries-old tradition. I respect this point of view but I do not agree.
I don’t think traditional calligraphy will be drowned out by a couple of street artists painting in Arabic. I paint with a spray can, not write with a kalam, so even my artistic instrument of choice is different.
Oryx: Where do you see ‘Islamic Art’ now, and in the future?
I think we are living an ‘Islamic Art’ renaissance, and graffiti is part of this movement. Arabic calligraphy is a major branch of Islamic art and much of my inspiration comes from this tradition. I am trying to keep this alive within the context of modern art through my use of arabesques, geometric patterns, and calligraphic styles.
Oryx: What projects have you worked on recently, and what are your upcoming plans?
I am currently working on a project set to take place in my original homeland, Tunisia. The aim of this project is to transform the façade of a building in Tunis into a commemorative symbol of the recent struggle. This mural will hopefully stand as a testimony to citizens, visitors, and future generations: portraying the ideals and values of the Tunisian people through calligraphic compositions and abstract figurative elements.
Each project I work on is unique and brings something new to both my artistic and personal growth. I think what I enjoy the most in any project is the human contact; sharing an artistic experience with others. Workshops have always been my favourite projects. When it comes to young adults and children, the learning curve is amazing – a kid can pick up a can for the first time and two hours later have a mastery of the paint unlike any adult. One of the first workshops I led was in my hometown of Teboulbou in southern Tunisia. I think it was the combination of giving back to my community, and watching these young kids have such a great time expressing themselves creatively, that made this experience the most rewarding.
Another interesting experience for me was a collective mural I worked on in Saudi Arabia. I was painting with young Saudis, and most notably some very talented Niqabis. I had never witnessed people crushing so many stereotypes by just being themselves – it was an eye-opening experience for me and I felt privileged to have collaborated with so many talented young Arab artists.
Another project I’m excited about is the ongoing series of events called Creativity & the Spiritual Path, which fosters creative talent and artistic expression in Muslim communities around the world.
Oryx: What do you try to incorporate across all of your projects?
One of the most important things in art is to stay authentic to one’s unique sense of identity. Every person and every artist has their own unique story and their own mix of cultural heritage. In a very direct sense, for me this means encouraging young Arab graffiti artists to paint in Arabic: finding their own forms of lettering and combining these with the classic American graffiti styles that have inspired them to paint.
View eL Seed’s work at: www.elseed-art.com.
“In 2010 I was commissioned by the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha to lead a series of workshops with students from different schools in the surrounding area. Initially it was a surprise to be contacted by such a prestigious institution, and I was honoured that my work had caught their attention. For a week, students from neighbouring schools created a mural on different themes. The purpose of each workshop was to introduce graffiti and calligraphic styles to youth who either have had little or no previous experience with the artistic process. MIA’s Amel Saadi-Cherif was intending to connect the traditions of Islamic art with the modern art that has developed from this heritage. It was an amazing experience, painting with so many enthusiastic young people in a truly beautiful environment.”
“I was recently featured in Pascal Zoghbi’s book Arabic Graffiti alongside several other artists. It was an honour to be included in its creation, and even more so to be asked to design the front cover. I hope more books about Arabic graffiti and design make their way to publishing houses – these are rapidly expanding art forms that deserve coverage and attention.”
“Art with a message about Islam is flourishing in many parts of the world today, and taking many forms. French graffiti artists have been painting in Arabic since the early nineties, but their art hasn't reached mainstream interest. Today we have a strong interest in anything ‘Islamic’ and ‘Arab’, so this type of artwork has an increasing bearing on mainstream culture.”