From New York to London, Paris, Melbourne, Toronto, Cape Town, and more, artist eL Seed aims to create universal feelings through public artworks that use a language many viewers cannot understand. Whether painting on canvases, walls, or crafting large-scale steel sculptures, eL Seed employs what is known as calligraffiti—melding traditional Arabic calligraphy with the style and colors of graffiti—to scrawl meaningful, and widely recognizable, quotes across his chosen surfaces. One of his most significant projects was in 2011, when he decorated the minaret of Jara Mosque in his family’s hometown of Gabes, Tunisia. Written in Arabic, the case with all of his works, he painted “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so you may know each other,” a passage from the Quran. It was met with mixed reviews, as even to those who read Arabic, the artist’s work can appear blown out of proportion and slightly jumbled, much like graffiti. To be able to read his work, however, is not the point. Rather, eL Seed hopes to touch the soul, before touching the eyes.
Growing up in Paris, eL Seed felt neither French nor Tunisian. In his early teens, when he created his pseudonym, he harkened back to his roots and decided to learn Arabic. Since then, his practice has been grounded in the language, yet it continually develops, eventually leading to becoming a TED Fellow and releasing a monograph with an introduction written by art dealer, curator, and former MOCA Los Angeles Director Jeffrey Deitch. He has also held workshops at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and at Harvard University. Most recently, he partook in a residency in Dubai at Tashkeel, and upon completion, decided to move his studio from Montreal to the global and transient city. Now, eL Seed calls a space within Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue his primary working space. Founded in 2008 by Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal and having undergone a twofold expansion last year, the Avenue houses renowned galleries, design shops, and even a concept pop-up fashion boutique, but eL Seed’s is the first artist’s studio.
Last weekend, during the Quoz Arts Festival held at Alserkal Avenue, we visited eL Seed in his new studio. The walls were still white and bare, but he told us there are plans to build a second level within the one-room space. Canvases rested on the ground and small steel prototypes decorated tables. We watched as he patiently drew visitors’ names in calligraphy and allowed two young children to select cans of spray paint from his overflowing cardboard boxes and decorate a portion of the wall. When public visiting hours ended, we sat down outside.
EMILY MCDERMOTT: So I know you decided to revisit your Tunisian heritage in your teens. What sparked that decision?
EL SEED: It was an identity crisis. I was born and raised in France, but I never really felt French, so I needed to find something that I was more connected to. I used to go back to Tunisia every summer, but I was more into the language, my Arabic roots. I couldn’t know about my culture, my history, without learning the language, so I started learning Arabic—reading, writing. I used to speak Arabic before that, but Tunisian Arabic dialect. Step by step, I discovered calligraphy. I painted before and I just brought the calligraphy into my artwork. That’s how everything started. The funny thing is the fact that going back to my roots made me feel French.
MCDERMOTT: Really? How did it make you feel French?
SEED: In France, they make you feel that you cannot be two things at the same time. You can’t be French and Arabic; you can’t be French and Muslim. When actually, you have one identity made of different parts. Depending on where you are, at what time in your life, some things are higher or deeper. That’s what I understood later: that I’m French and Tunisian, and I’m accepting the French part of my identity.
MCDERMOTT: When was the first time you painted on the streets?
SEED: ’98 in France. [It was] just a small drawing, like a guy with hair. I wrote the name of a friend from my neighborhood. It was just a teenager piece.
MCDERMOTT: Was it around then that you created your name?
SEED: Yeah, “eL Seed” came at the same time. It was inspired by the French play Le Cid by Pierre Corneille. It was seeing “Le Cid” coming from the Arabic name “el sayed,” which means “the master, the man.” So I called myself like that because I was 16; I said, “Yes, I’m the man.” That’s how it started.
MCDERMOTT: As you grew older, did you consider changing it? What did you think about calling yourself “the man” or “the master?”
SEED: Oh no, I changed it. I used to write it “scid,” and I changed it a few years ago to “seed,” like “the seed,” going back to Arabic, getting back to my roots.
MCDERMOTT: So coming from France and having Tunisian heritage, how did you come to open a studio space at Alerskal Avenue in Dubai?
SEED: I was based in Montreal and then I left and moved to the region. I did an art residency in a place called Tashkeel. I noticed I liked the region, I like the energy, and I think Dubai is a good place. There’s this energy here that I was needing. I felt like I needed a studio, like I needed to be based here. I knew about this initiative Alserkal and this other space called d3 [the Dubai Design District]. Then we talked with Alerskal, I think a year ago, and it was just a conversation on and off. In September, I said “You know what, I’m just going to take this space,” and I decided to take it.
MCDERMOTT: How has Dubai influenced you? It’s such a global, transient place, and you work on such a global scale…
SEED: You meet a lot of people coming from a lot of different places. Even me, I’m always in transit. I don’t stay anywhere too long. I like the energy that I found when I came here the first time. I start knowing people, and people start knowing me as well. Then the opportunity, the support you can find here—you can’t find that anywhere else. It’s inspiring. I think to be in this kind of community, you have The Odd Piece opposite my studio, the ikonhouse, and galleries—people in transit from one door to another door. It’s like somebody will buy something from The Odd Piece, and then they’ll come visit my studio. It’s a network that’s created.
MCDERMOTT: How do you select where you’re going to do one of your installations, and from that, what inspires the quote you paint?
SEED: It depends on the topic I’m exploring. I’ve been working a lot with identity and roots, being part of your roots. I went into this topic where I was trying to break the stereotype of Arabic language. The non-translation work, this is where I make the switch, where you don’t need to translate. Today, I’m more into the perception scope of a work; I’m exploring this concept of perception and how people can look at someone, look at the community, and put in so much judgment, so much stereotype, so much misconception. I’m trying to create artwork that makes people, and myself, think about judgment as a reflex. This is something that must be changed.
MCDERMOTT: You obviously draw many quotes from philosophical books and religious texts. What have you been reading lately that you find inspiring?
SEED: Right now I’m reading Colonel Chabert, a French book about this military guy who fights for Napoleon and that everybody thinks is dead, but then he comes back. I’m also rereading Orientalism from Edward Said. It’s a really tough book. I read it a few years ago and I’m trying to read it again. That’s the kind of stuff I’m into now. I was reading a lot about Coptic art recently because I’m working on a project in the Coptic community. Sometimes the reading is related to something I do, sometimes it’s not. I feel like every time I read something, there’s a quote or something that comes [into the work] later. There’s nothing that happens by coincidence. It’s fate, I would say.
MCDERMOTT: In your TED Talk, when talking about the fact that not everyone can read or understand your works, you said, “You don’t need know the meaning to feel the piece.” Can you expand upon that idea?
SEED: I’ve seen it personally that people have a natural sensibility to Arabic script. I don’t know it if it’s because of the shape, I don’t know what it is in this script that makes it so universal. But even if you don’t understand it, you still have this feeling; you can feel the piece of art in front of you. I say, “It touches your soul before it touches your eyes.” This is a true thing, because everywhere I’ve been, from South Africa to Brazil, people are connected to it. For me, art is a way to bring people together. You can put people on the same level, the perception is the same. You can bring a worker, like a cleaning guy, or the richest guy on earth, and they will have the same feeling or they would be able to feel the same. Art brings people back to their sensibility as human beings. This is the purpose of art: To bring people together and bring back the humanity as well.