Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat—Anyone following the world of the arts in the Arab world and the Middle East will no doubt note how young people’s interests go hand-in-hand with other trends around the world: From hip-hop to stand-up comedy to graffiti, we find close links between the interests of young Arabs and young people around the world, a case of ‘Same form, different content.’ While some try their hand at literal imitation, others seek a more syncretistic approach, blending domestic artistic forms from the Middle East with international sensibilities and flavors.
One example of the latter is Tunisian artist eL Seed, who blends graffiti with the more traditional art of Arab calligraphy, mixing new forms with old in a mélange of the modern and the traditional in a way that is authentic and honest.
eL Seed sums up the outlook of many of the younger generation in the Arab world today seeking to tread their own artistic path, and he commands considerable respect and admiration from his peers. Like them, he listens to hip-hop music and carries his spray paint around wherever he goes, ready to transform any building he encounters into a canvas that can carry his artistic vision to a wider audience.
Reaching a wider audience was the idea behind his new book, Missing Walls: A Journey through Tunisia’s Calligraffiti, which he launched at the Art Dubai fair. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the artist on the sidelines of the fair.
The art of “calligraffiti” is by no means new. An already established artform pioneered in Amsterdam and Los Angeles by artists such as Niels Meulman and Jeffrey Deitch in the 1980s, it originally blended traditional European calligraphy, such as that used in medieval illuminated manuscripts, with modern graffiti art, perhaps like that seen on a wall in Queens, in New York. Indeed, it was one of the innovators of calligraffiti, Jeffrey Deitch, who wrote the preface to eL Seed’s new book. Deitch has been writing about calligraffiti since the 1980s, when he was director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 1984 he organized an exhibition in New York, “Calligraffiti,” to bring the new art to a wider audience. He held the event again last September, this time including work by artists from the Middle East such as Shirin Neshat, Hossein Zenderoud and, of course, eL Seed.
In the book, eL Seed gives an account of the journey he made to Tunisia the previous summer. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, he said: “For a whole month, I travelled around Tunisia, from north to south. At each stop, I spoke to people and listened to stories about their lives. With each story I found a subject for a graffiti artwork I could leave behind in that town or village.”
So how did he choose the walls on which he draws his graffiti, and how did he choose which words to use? He says: “The message [of the artworks] comes from talking to people. There is an expression in Tunisia, ‘You enter the city through its man,’ that is, through a resident you already know. And, indeed, in every city we visited, we knew someone to whom we could explain the idea of the project and that we wanted to make Tunisia, and the city itself, beautiful.”
A particular example is when eL Seed visited Greisa, a city in Tunisia that was controlled by the French for more than 100 years. “The city used to be rich in iron deposits, but now it’s not so prosperous. When you talk to the older residents, you will find them lamenting the loss of the city’s old glory days. But the young have no connection with this time. From this I got the idea for a graffiti, on which I wrote the line, ‘Time stops, life goes on.’ This graffiti is drawn on a wall facing the old iron factory, whose fortunes are now very different from the 1960s and 1970s.”
Among eL Seed’s favorite subjects are the environment and Arab–Islamic culture. He is critical of some individuals from the Arab world who are unable to be proud of their own culture or are wilfully ignorant of it. He cites as an example the ancient Berber city of Tataouine, near the Algerian border, whose name and landmarks were made famous in the West when George Lucas used the name and the location for Luke Skywalker’s home planet in his Star Wars films. Speaking of the films and their relationship with the city, eL Seed said: “George Lucas was created in this place [Tataouine], which witnessed the creation of his film series. But Tataouine also contains 155 archaeological sites, 11 of which are under the government’s supervision, with the remaining palaces neglected. What is really odd is that tourist guides and brochures in Tunisia always recommend visiting the Star Wars site, as if it were a landmark of Tunisian culture. I didn’t understand how the film location was being considered part of our culture, while we have a history dating back 3,000 years. I don’t get it. The official authorities now market the George Lucas set that was built in 1979 to foreign tourists who come from abroad.”
And so eL Seed during his travels through Tunisia decided to stop at Tataouine. “I found an old resident who welcomed us and I told him about the book and that I wanted to use it to present a different image of Tunisia than the one in the tourist brochures. I told him about the mosque whose walls I drew on in my home town, and asked for his permission to draw on a wall in the city. He agreed, and I wrote on it the phrase, ‘I will never be your son,’ which was taken from Star Wars and reflects my attitude towards the ‘Star Wars city’ in Tataouine. The message of the graffiti was: ‘You are not part of my culture and my heritage.’” However, eL Seed’s message to George Lucas was later removed.
Despite himself blending a number of artistic traditions from different cultures, eL Seed thinks it is important to be proud of one’s own culture and heritage and wants the younger generation in the Arab world to also think this way. Speaking of the criticism he faced for drawing on the walls of the Star Wars city, he said: “There was something that made me laugh about this. I posted that drawing on Facebook and I was surprised to see people from Tunisia attacking me savagely, claiming that George Locus is part of Tunisian culture. I drew on the walls of much older buildings dating back 100 years—their owners allowed me to draw on them. But when I tried to draw on walls that date only 30 years back, I was attacked. I think the whole situation depends on culture; we do not have cultural education. Now everyone is overwhelmed by the West. Even the youth who enter the graffiti scene write in English. Do you know why? Because we are not proud of what we have. Those who attacked me are proud that George Locus came from the US to shoot his film here, but they are not proud of monuments like Carthage.”
eL Seed’s journey across Tunisia took him a full month, during which he visited 17 cities and villages, leaving behind 24 graffiti artworks. “During the project, it was important to leave behind my work for the people, as they do not see this much,” he said. “One time, I saw a house and asked the landlord to let me draw on its walls, and he agreed immediately. Yet, having started drawing, another man appeared who turned out to be the real landlord. The man objected to our work, and we apologized to him. I asked him for some time to finish the drawing so we could take a photo of it before we removed it. Yet, having watched the work completed and admired it, the man asked us to keep it.”
Does eL Seed think he was successful in conveying his message to young artists and to those interested in graffiti, or does he believe their interest stems purely from attraction to a fashion or a fad? He says: “You know, there are some people who are really knowledgeable and there are others who just imitate in order to boast about their work to their friends on social networking websites. I try to encourage the youth to discover the things that distinguish them from others, for we should not just imitate and copy work from outside. Having been asked by someone to give my opinion of his work, I said, ‘This is a good copy of what I draw, but you should have your own style.’ There are a few promising young artists who have a special style of their own, while there are some who depend on the style of other artists. To those people I say, ‘Look around us, in Europe and America, we can find over a hundred styles of art. You can even find styles that differ from one another as you move from one district to another [within the same city] as, for example, in New York.’ This is why I encourage young artists to use the Arabic language in their graffiti. I find it meaningless for a young man in Kuwait to write in a foreign language, as he should be proud of his own language and history. We always look abroad.”
From eL Seed’s journeys to Europe and America and around the Arab world, which he started from his home in Tunisia, it seems he is an artist who has left his drawings in many places. But is there a place he hasn’t visited yet which he dreams of writing on? “I don’t know,” he answers. “Maybe the moon. My coming project will be in a different place—Istanbul, Damascus—but the farthest place I dream of drawing on is the moon.”