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Dubai-based street artist eL Seed caught the attention of the world with his caligraffiti in Cairo. He continues to create in the region
eL Seed is currently reading a 900-page book about Congo. “There’s something I need to do with it,” says the French-born calligraphy street artist. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I think I need to go to Congo.”
For eL Seed, his large-scale paintings and sculptures always start with a dusty stack of books. “Reading about history and finding a point of connection is really interesting,” he says. “Research is the part of my work people don’t see and it’s the part that takes the most time. I did a project in Egypt two years ago that took five months of research. Last year I did a project in the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea and that took three months of research to find the right word.”
The right word is what eL Seed incorporates into his artwork. “I get most happiness, not from finishing the artwork, but when I find the word that I want to write.”
eL Seed’s calligrafitti work has been seen in Paris, New York, Rio and Cape Town, as well as on Louis Vuitton scarves. “I go and make artwork in places that have stories to tell,” he says.
But perhaps his most famous work was a huge 2016 urban mural in Cairo that covered 50 buildings in a forsaken part of the Egyptian capital known as the garbage district because of its lowly-paid inhabitants who recycle the city’s waste. The painted wrap in his distinctive Arabic calligraffiti style bears the words of a third century Bishop and says, “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.”
eL Seed’s latest project is an eight-metre long, pink metal sculpture outside Dubai Opera called Declaration that was inspired by a Syrian poet named Nazir Qabbani. In November the artwork stood in front of a 40m x 15m wrap around a temporary installation by luxury Italian wool experts Loro Piana that, as usual, began with the artist flicking through history books.
“That piece was based on a six-verse poem called The Treasury by Alfonso X, who ruled Spain in the 13th century,” explains eL Seed. “He was a man of literature, art and science who wrote that being rich is not about being wealthy but it’s about character. That was the message I wanted to portray through the artwork.”
Born in Paris to Tunisian parents, 37-year-old eL Seed chuckles, “People on Twitter get angry and say I’m a Tunisian-French artist, but other people say I’m French-Tunisian because I was born in Paris.”
What’s his view? “I don’t care,” he says with a shrug.
He enjoyed an art residency at Tashkeel in Dubai and has a studio at Alserkal Avenue. “We have a lot of ideas and projects at the moment and now it’s just a question of logistics,” he explains. “I’m really trying to push the bar higher. I have one project in the next two years that, if I manage to do it, will be crazy.”
Whatever that project is, it’s hard to imagine eL Seed will ever top his Cairo mural.
“That was an amazing moment,” he reflects with a smile. “More people became interested in my work after that. One guy in my team said it must feel a bit like Thriller and Michael Jackson — now you have done this, people are expecting something bigger! But it’s not about creating something big, it’s about creating something meaningful.”
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