Earlier this year, doe-eyed French-Tunisian artist eL Seed unveiled a giant piece of anamorphic calligraffiti unifying the buildings of Cairo's garbage city. We ambushed him at Zamalek's Art Talks gallery where his Zaraeeb exhibition was held to talk art and human connection.
Before I met eL Seed, the collective exalted fascination with sincerity and all that is intrinsically good and human seemed completely valid to me. I had been ignorant to the natural order of things and all too familiar with the artificial constructs and effected culture of this world, whereby an act of kindness is a political statement and integrity is a form of dignified rebellion, and a person is never seen in context, but rather in contrast with the observer’s flaws and shortcomings.
I observed him from across the room; his bashful taciturn presence drowned out the idle chatter and the clinking of glasses, and outshined the lustrous Harry Winston jewellery and Prada patent leather that framed him at Zamalek’s Art Talks gallery, where his Zaraeeb exhibition was held. He was out of his element; he belongs not with the jet-setting beau monde but in Hayy El Zabballeen (Garbage City) in the district of Manshiyet Nasser, where the rapturous calligraffiti from his latest project, Perception, is emblazoned across its buildings, forever occupying the neighbourhood’s heart. If these walls could talk, they’d tell you to wipe your eyes if you want to see the sunlight, or so eL Seed willed them to when he whimsically set out to adorn 50 buildings within the marginalised and underprivileged neighbourhood with an anamorphic mural that can only be viewed in its entirety from the top of the Muqattam mountain. “We arrived in Cairo one afternoon and we drove straight to Muqattam’s Cave Church to talk to Magd [the church guide], who said no at first," he recounts. "Then, when I pleaded with him, he said: ‘The only person you need to convince is Father Samaan [the leader of the community] and to convince him you need to convince Mario [a Polish sculptor who moved to Egypt 20 years ago and created all the artwork in the church]’. When I finally managed to get a meeting with Baba Samaan, he told me to come back once I figure out what I want to write, so I came back three months later – because I wanted to do some research and make sure I have the right words for the place – with Saint Athanasius of Alexandria’s words, ‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first'.”
Born and raised in Paris to working-class Tunisian parents, eL Seed didn’t learn to write or read Arabic until his adolescence. Caught in the throes of an identity crisis, he sought to reclaim his mother tongue, but the swirling symbols of the intricate language soon turned into an elaborate labyrinth he couldn’t get out of. “I started learning at the age of 18, and then I became interested in calligraphy. I found a teacher, but he couldn’t teach me because I was the only one interested,” he recounts. “I started learning online, learning some old classic calligraphy and then reproducing it, without knowing the rules. This is how it started.”Yet he doggedly refuses to be seen through that depressingly trite perspective thrust upon second-generation ‘immigrants’, which deems the reclamation of ancestral culture a form of proselytization. Nothing peeves him more than the allegorization that earned him the designation ‘revolutionary artist’ – 10 years of making walls across the world speak in Arabic prose, from New York to Mumbai and beyond, will probably do that to you. “I don’t make political statements in my art, but when you paint in a public space, it’s political by definition. I don’t want to be the guy who shouts ‘Power to the people’ or those cheesy statements everybody makes sometimes, I want to go deeper,” he insists. “Les Murs Perdus (Lost Walls) is political, but it’s not presented as such; everybody was focused on the political issues of Tunisia, and everybody forgot that there was so much culture and heritage, that some communities have been erased from the map and forgotten. And so you go and try to highlight that,” he says of his 2013 calligraffiti tour across Tunisia.
Perception as seen from the top of the Muqattam. Photo: eL Seed
His ingenuity and authenticity in art are the result of many years of grounded and diligent introspection, crystallising an undistortable self-concept. “My dad was a fella7 who moved to France to give us an education. He couldn’t read when he first got there. I remember the first dictionary we bought; it was because my brother didn’t know how to spell chewing gum,” he reminisces. “I’m super proud of who I am and my origins. I don’t play the victim.”
eL Seed with 3am Fawzi
And perhaps that explains why members of the Hayy El Zabballeen community were also in attendance at the Zaraeeb exhibition opening. Mario, Manar, Uncle Fawzi, Khalto Farida, Uncle Bekheet, and others not only put faces to the characters and stories that inspired the exhibition’s lithographs and paintings, but also provided a buffer between him and all the imminent cultural elitization of his art. “They are the best people I’ve ever met – seriously, honestly, I’ve been everywhere in the world and there’s no one like them. People, they forget. I get so mad when they call them zabballeen (garbage men); zabballeen are the ones who produce the garbage,” he says, irate. “Zaraeeb is an homage to them.”
Fuelled by copious amounts of white wine, I sat down on a couch on one side of the room to conduct a little sociological survey. From that vantage point, I could see eL Seed’s honoured guests and muses – in their traditional homely dress – treated like they were exhibits themselves, but I couldn’t quite verbalise my findings. That is, until a friend of mine sneered “Culture vultures!” when eL Seed was posing for a selfie with his ‘zabballeen’ friends and every phone camera in the room turned to them to snap it. Then it occurred to me that all great art comes from a place of exploitative voyeurism, a shining example being Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood. It’s the same mass voyeurism that put the face of CNN’s Clarissa Ward, and other white faces, on Aleppo’s agony – this in no way diminishes the value of their earnest pursuit to draw the world’s attention to the horrors of the war in Syria, it simply demonstrates the very fine line between storytelling and – inadvertently or otherwise – claiming a share in another’s story.
eL Seed is an exception to that rule of thumb. His great art is not an end but a means to people’s hearts. “I’d knock on someone’s door and ask for a glass of water; the next morning, they bring you soda; a week after, they invite you in for lunch; two weeks later, you’re playing soccer and joining them for their cousin’s wedding; and when it’s time for you to leave, they cry. That’s what happens when you tell someone you want to paint their house,” he muses adoringly. “Khaltu Farida gave me the key to her house, and when we went to the top of the Muqattam to look at the whole piece, 3ammo Bakheet cried and told us we were like sons to him. […] Art is just a pretext.”
Being the culture vulture voyeur myself, by virtue of my chosen profession, I ambushed eL Seed with a request to accompany him, together with my ‘crew’, to Manshiyet Nasser the following day to thoroughly document how he magnanimously deigns to break bread with the ‘peasants’, after I overheard 3am Fawzi heartwarmingly and genially telling him “Mestaneyenku 3al ghada bokra!” I realise now, in hindsight, that it must have taken every iota in his being to muster the courtesy to quite politely tell me to F off.
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Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.