With an array of paint spray cans, French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, has adorned many a building wall the world over with his personal brand of graffiti art. His works carry a message – not confrontational as with a lot of this street genre – but more of reconciliation.
For eL Seed’s aim is to use his art as a way to build bridges between people, culture and generations in areas of conflict in particular. The sites he chooses might be on a mosque in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first began, or in the conflict-torn favelas of Rio de Janeiro or in a poverty-stricken township in Cape Town or on the border between North and South Korea. Where necessary, translations may accompany the works.
The messages he writes are ones of hope, tailored to the locations in which they are placed. They might comprise simple slogans, well-known poems or stories. Intending to honour the historic garbage collectors of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser neighbourhood, for example, the message reads, “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.” It’s the left hand image above and is written on 50 buildings and can only be seen as a whole from a local mountaintop.
This last work earned him a Global Thinker award from Foreign Policy magazine in 2016. A year later, he won the UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab culture.
What unites his work is the style in which they are painted – his version of ancient Arab calligraphy, that he has dubbed Calligraffiti. Brought up in France of Muslim parents, he only learnt Arabic in his teens. His characters swoop, curve, loop and swirl. “It’s like a dance in a certain way,” he tells me. “When I paint I feel like dancing.”
Now, in his first UK exhibition, eL Seed has brought his calligraphic art to London’s Lazinc Gallery in a show entitled Tabula Rasa. It’s a thoughtful title taken from the 17th century British philosopher John Locke who argued that when you’re born, your mind is a blank canvas upon which experience imprints knowledge.
For the exhibition, eL Seed has stripped down his own paintings in an effort to access his own tabula rasa. More importantly, is the impression he wants to create for the gallery visitor. “I wanted to invite the viewer to the show to create their own tabula rasa, coming to a show with a blank slate and removing all their preconceptions good or bad that they might have around Arabic culture and Arabic things in general.”
The result is a series of black calligraphic patterns that resemble thin, sharp, undulating and twisting slivers of metal set atop various coloured patterned layers. The paintings in the exhibition are more for their aesthetic value than their messages of hope. I’m not an Arabic speaker but when I spoke to one who was, she could decipher only the odd word. I asked eL Seed whether this is a problem when he makes work in non-Arabic speaking lands. “I think we can appreciate Arabic calligraphy and Arabic scripts in the same way we appreciate music from a different language. There is a universal beauty and it doesn’t need to be translated.”
Most of the works in the show contain a part in the centre that appears unfinished, where the calligraphic shapes are not filled in. I see it as a symbol of division referring back to the conflicts, misconceptions or preconceptions perhaps that he has addressed. It’s also, as he put it, “the feeling of ripping up something and starting a new page”, the tabula rasa again.
As an exhibition, Tabula Rasa has too many works that are merely variations on the same theme to make it particularly memorable. The paintings don’t carry the same impact as those artworks emblazoned on the sides of buildings replete with their political or symbolic resonance. Individually though, they have a particular beauty of the type you don’t often see in the west. It’s no surprise that a high-end fashion house like Louis Vuitton has used eL Seed’s calligraphic designs to adorn its clothes and accoutrements.
Tabula Rasa is showing at Lazinc Gallery, 29 Sackville St, Mayfair, London W1S 3DX until 9 March 2019
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.