At Large  October 26, 2018  Nicole Restaino

Art Talk: eL Seed

eL Seed's completed mural, Perception, in Cairo's Manshiyat Naser neighborhood

French-Tunisian artist eL Seed released his first book project, Perception, earlier this month. The book, in limited edition of 500, is both an accompaniment to and documentation of the artist’s extraordinary mural by the same name, which stretches across fifty buildings in Cairo. Displaying the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the Third Century: ‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first,’ the project employs the artist’s signature style, “calligraffiti,” which incorporates the visual culture of traditional Arab calligraphy into contemporary, often politically charged, street art. Perception is also a work of social practice; it responds to the inhabitants and economies of Manshiyat Naser, a particular, and often overlooked, corner of the Egyptian capital. eL Seed executed the project in communion with the residents of the neighborhood, which is home to many of Cairo’s garbage collectors. The process and project resulted in new perspectives on peoples and geographies often described as impoverished and undesirable.

eL Seed

Nicole Restaino: Perception must have entailed extensive preparations-site selection, long-term work within a community, production of a work of a massive scale. Can you briefly walk me through the process of conception to execution? How long does the research, community building, and preparatory phase last? 

eL Seed: I was feeling stuck in my artistic practice, and my friend had showed me a picture of this neighborhood in Cairo years before. So, we booked flights and went, and we didn't know anybody. Initially, there was community suspicion, people I met would wonder why I was doing this, and who would really end up financing the project. But, eventually, I started to meet people, one after another. I then began the process of finding a message that would be useful to this specific neighborhood, the people in it. From there, it took about a year of preparation-getting to know the community, designing the project, and ironing out logistics. Once we started actually drawing and painting onto the buildings, execution took about one month. 

NR: Your work draws on the past to speak of/to contemporary communities: you draw on the visual culture of Arabic calligraphy, the words of Third Century Coptic bishop mark Perception, you used the words of early 20th century poet Kim Sowol in your DMZ project. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship to history and your work's relationship to the same? 

eS: It is important for me to do something from the community in which I'm painting. This ensures that the most immediate communities relate to, and are connected to, my pieces. As you know, many—though not all—of the garbage collectors in Manshiyat Naser, the neighborhood surrounding Perception, are Coptic. So, I chose the words of a Coptic bishop to anchor the piece. With history, though, there is also a universal dimension. We all, we all have histories, we all connect to the past. So, in this way, the specific becomes the universal, and the ability to relate to my piece opens up indefinitely.

NR: How well did Perception translate to a book? Did you enjoy working in the book form, which is of such different scale than a mural? Is the book simply a companion to the mural or a related artwork with its own intrinsic merit? 

eS: I wrote the book after the mural was complete, and I went back to the neighborhood to write it. It was a way for me to translate the intensity and emotion of this project into another form. The book is cathartic for me: it was also a sort of download and completion. It was difficult for me to move on and start new challenges unless I channeled the intensity and emotionality of this project into another material, physical work. I worked through this by writing down every single detail and experience and, as best I could, translating it to words. The level of detail, it’s almost like a diary. Because I used the book to convey additional dimensions of Perception, it is like a continuation of the project, not an addendum to it. 

NR: How do you embed in new communities and get to know people within? How do communities perceive you, your work and your projects?  

eS: I use art as a universal human experience...when you first ask, they look at you weird...after two days or so they start asking you questions, invite you to the house, and it just goes from there. You meet one person, another and then another and more again. Art is the best tool for bringing people together. That's why I keep doing what I do.

NR: How does the community participate in your work? Do you have one or two point people within the groups you work with? Do your work with community committees? Community leaders? Are the communities you work with ultimately given veto power? How do you incorporate community feedback? 

eS: In terms of this piece, the processes, the logistics, bureaucracy, and red tape was all pretty simple. The community in Manshiyat Naser was very open to me, eventually. We discussed above a bit of the suspicion I received early on; when I started out on the piece I truly did not know anyone! Ultimately, though, the community believed I had a good intention and they let me just sort of "do" my work. That’s something that’s very much documented in the book, and a part of the project that was so truly exciting to me. My general philosophy of working within and around communities is organic, I just try to build ongoing, sustainable ties.

NR: Thank for taking the time to discuss Perception, both the book and the mural. Can we end by talking about your next project? 

eS: I have a lot of surprises upcoming! I don’t want to give away too much before my next major project is revealed. I can tell you that a movie about Perception will release in January. I’ll also have an unrelated video show in London in November. Other than that, you’ll have to keep an eye on me.

About the Author

Nicole Restaino

Nicole Restaino is an arts administrator, project manager, and programs and performance curator. She's trained in Art History and Public Humanities, and has a deep interest in the interpretation, circulation, display, trade and curation of art and cultural production.