Building bridges across communities, cultures, preconceptions and artistic forms, El Seed is throwing up a unifying mirror of colour, clean form and the universality of cross cultural humanity. Fusing the ancient medium of calligraphy with the urban poetry of graffiti and street art, he unites two artistic currents into Calligraffiti, both in an exploration of his own conflicted identity of a Muslim living in an often dangerously prejudiced western world and the nature of that prejudice itself as he opens a dialogue across religion, culture and community through the glorious metaphor of stylistic heterodoxy. We contacted El Seed as he painted the street of Montreal a softer shade of understanding and had a conversation.
Can you tell us a little about your background
I grew up in Paris, France. The son of Tunisian immigrants, I was raised between two worlds; between my North African roots and my French European education. I have always been interested in combining these two aspects of my identity, in both my art and in other ventures. I started painting and drawing when I was quite young, but never had any formal training as I ended up in business school.
What took you down the road to Calligraffiti
Ever since I began to paint and make art, calligraphy was a big part of my life and I would draw inspiration from the old masters of calligraphy. Graffiti also came early on in my artistic life. I began to tag the walls of Paris in 1998 but stopped shortly after my focus changed to University studies. However, I continued to paint on clothes with styles reminiscent of the graffiti and street art scene, never quite losing touch with hip hop culture. Once I moved to North America, first New York City, then Montreal, I began to paint again with the graffiti artist Hest. Through his guidance and support, I began to mix my love for calligraphy and graffiti and eventually emerged with my own style. I am definitely not the first nor the last to paint walls using Arabic script, but my own particular style grew from a mix of classical calligraphy, using clean edges and complicated lettering, and old school graffiti, using walls to create messages and get people to think about pertinent issues.
From what I understand, calligraphy developed as a profoundly Islamic form of art due to restrictions concerning pictorial representations, which have their roots in hadiths. Certain schools of thought posit that reproducing images of living creatures is prohibited within Islam, therefore developing forms of art which avoided direct representations of living beings. Furthermore, reverence for the divine text, the Qur’an, gave words and writing a high rank in Islamic societies. Historically, scribes were commissioned to reproduce the Qur’an in the most beautiful lettering possible, thus encouraging artists to develop highly stylized forms of writing. It seems to me that the combination of love and reverence for the Qur’an and certain revelations said to prohibit reproducing living things have made calligraphy one of the most distinct and highest forms of art within Islamic cultures.
How does Islam impact your creative process
As a Muslim, Islam impacts every part of my life, including my art. Early on, I would paint portraits, cartoons and other forms of representational art. However, as my knowledge of Islam grew and I began to integrate its principles into my everyday life, I realized that I no longer wanted to represent living beings. This is the main reason why I began to develop calligraphy into my painting and why it has now become the vehicle for my artistic messages. In this sense, Islam has shaped my creative process and has guided my paintbrush and my spray can to where they now point.
The name El Seed – is that a play on Sa’id or El Cid, or does it refer to the idea of planting a seed of thought
When I started graffiti in 1998, I was looking for a name with an Arabic sound which would correspond with my North African roots. I was first inspired by the book ‘Le Cid’ by the French author Corneille. Cid, or Sa’id, means ‘the Man’ and this appealed to me in my youth so I began to tag my name as ‘El Scid’. However, as I began to develop my calligraphic style and my artistic vision began to mature, I changed my name to ‘eL Seed’. I found that this spelling better reflected the quest for my roots and my origins by calling upon the metaphor of a plant.
Since I produce murals with the intention of them being viewed in both Arabic and non-Arabic speaking parts of the world, I strive to deliver art which is both pleasing to the eye and thoughtful in its meaning. The writing itself is always important, and every word or phrase I choose is pregnant with allegorical and interpretive meaning. I try to use eye-catching forms and arrangements to pull the viewer into the piece and essentially awaken a curiosity as to what it all means. At the end of the day, one of my main aims is to make people who don’t understand Arabic want to understand, and thus create bridges between languages, cultures and paradigms.
What does abstraction of the written word bring to its meaning
Being able to appreciate the form of a letter or a word enables the viewer to perceive language not just as letters, words, and sentences but also as art and poetry. Abstraction of the written word provides a more holistic vision and appreciation of what is being read. A letter or word thus begets a personality, a form, an image, which complements its meaning.
In my opinion fear mostly stems from a state of ignorance. Fear of the unknown, in this case, of Islam, Muslims and anything ‘Middle Eastern’, brings about several different responses, one of which is rejection and prejudice. I have found that prejudice is most easily overcome by sharing experiences which humanize those that are being judged or labelled. In this sense, it is of utmost importance to bring forth Islamic art and culture and invite everyone to relate to it.
Please could you shed some light on the double marginalisation within your work
My work couples street art, which is largely perceived as modern, with calligraphy, an ancient form of Islamic art which is largely perceived as traditional. Through this amalgam I am part of those artists who strive to legitimize street art within the contemporary art scene. My work is also about Islamic art striving to take root in and share itself with the occidental world.
How important is placement to you
This is definitely something that I keep in mind when choosing walls. Of course, as an artist trying to convey a message, the more it is visible, the better the message is heard or seen. However, with the rise in social media, I think this becomes less of an issue, as photos can be disseminated easily. However, there is of course an enormous difference between viewing a photo of a mural and viewing the mural itself. With this in mind, I do try to paint murals which have a lot of traffic.
On the whole, the local community here in Montreal has been very supportive of my work and endeavours to engage with its message. Most of the time people do not understand the actual meaning of the word, but they are curious and many have taken steps to decipher the Arabic script, which is exactly what I hope viewers will try and do. What is also rewarding as an artist is to be able to surprise people with my style and medium. Many Montrealers are surprised to see Arabic script mixed with street art.
What are the relative conceptual powers of writing and image
Through calligraphy, especially complicated calligraphies, which even native speakers have difficulty deciphering, the written word can carry not only the depth of a specific word, but also that of an image or picture. Composition and colour are both very important to me when creating calligraphies, they give the word a shape and a soul; they give a word character which then overlaps with the actual meaning of the word. Images definitely have their own power, but I think that as we become more and more saturated with images in this image-based culture, they lose their potency. Perhaps I would conclude that it takes less effort to engage with an image but that more can be derived from the representation of a written word.
From what I have experienced so far, street art is still struggling to stand amongst other forms of reputable art. Different Muslim communities hold different relationships to street art. In North America Muslims seem to be more receptive to street art, perhaps due to the history of graffiti in the USA. I have found that younger generations within Muslim communities are inspired by seeing Islamic art in a modern context. I certainly hope it encourages young Muslims to take pride in their heritage and take their talents to new heights whilst paying homage to their ancestry.
How do you explore colour within your pieces
As I mentioned earlier, colour is an essential part of my work process. My approach to colour is different when I am creating a stand-alone calligraphy and when I am creating a mural composition. Colour seems to play a bigger part in my murals, especially when using background patterns and other images to complement the calligraphy. Colour helps in either bringing the calligraphy to the forefront, or letting it blend in with the rest of a composition.
Is there a magic within geometry
Of course! For centuries, numbers and geometric shapes have been considered a pathway to discovering the secrets of the divine and one of its most beautiful manifestations. Considering the precision of geometric patterns and the frequency with which they appear all around us, its magic is potent and quite alive. The magic of geometry is most apparent when creating or reproducing geometric shapes, which have been well exploited throughout the various forms of Islamic art.
I don’t believe that art can be pigeon-holed as one thing or another. Art is expression and creation and a broad definition of art includes not simply painting, drawing or sculpting, but also the manner in which we interact with and treat others, and essentially how we live life. Art can be strong in mirroring events in order to bring forth self-reflection and social critique, but it can be equally as strong as a participant in events through moulding mindsets, and influencing actions and reactions.
Where are you going from here
To infinity and beyond!!! ( inchaAllah)