“Oh, there’s Arabic graffiti?”
Artist eL Seed is used to comments like these. He heard them echoed as he stood outside the Science Center on the morning of Monday, March 26. eL Seed, a self-proclaimed “calligraffiti” artist, stood outside discussing the common reactions to his artwork—like the one above—from the Arab and Muslim community. Behind him, a team of volunteers set up a large blank canvas.
From 11 a.m. to roughly 4 p.m., eL Seed worked continuously to create a piece that is part Arabic calligraphy, part graffiti, and part public performance art. He added layer after layer of color and shape, using impeccably straight strokes to form the phrase “take back the purple” in Arabic. “Take back the purple” is a symbolic allusion to the old political regime in Tunisia that was toppled in last year’s revolution. “eL Seed has been very involved in post-revolutionary Tunisia, and so part of what he’s doing today is linked with some of that,” says Paul Beran, director of the Outreach Center at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. “The art form itself is very interesting because it’s playing off of both calligraphy and graffiti.” eL Seed’s radically unique interpretation of traditional Arabic calligraphy jumped off of the pages of Islamic manuscripts and landed in the middle of Harvard, directly engaging the undergraduate community.
eL Seed has pieces all over the world—especially in Quebec, the Middle East, and France. Although he grew up in France, eL Seed is ethnically Tunisian and currently lives in Quebec. “I never felt really French, and I really felt the need to get back to my roots. I thought a way to do that was to learn Arabic, so I found Arabic calligraphy,” he says. “I started creating my own calligraphy without any rules, because traditional Arabic calligraphy is very in the box with a lot of rules that you need to know, so I started incorporating Arabic into graffiti.”
eL Seed’s modernization of this deeply religious art form echoes a greater desire for the Muslim community to preserve and integrate its culture with the force of globalization according to Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and head of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. This type of artwork creates a context that artists from the Islamic community can use to reinterpret traditional art forms. “It’s a way in which people are able to connect their experiences to modernity, but [can also] root it in their past,” says Asani. “With calligraffiti you see a traditional form of art that has been highly developed and highly esteemed in the Arab world now being utilized in a different context—in the context of graffiti and the emergence of urban culture.” Artists like eL Seed strive to prove that art in the Islamic world has an extremely rich history and continues to grow in both practice and potential.
The interest in the roots of Islamic art and culture not only links eL Seed’s work to tradition but also creates a forum for his community to feel a sense of empowerment in politics. eL Seed prompts the public to make changes in society by placing powerful words in outdoor spaces—not by criticizing the government. “People were telling me that the mural was a part of their soul, so that was very touching,” he said about a mural he recently finished in Kairouan, Tunisia, with the help of several civilian volunteers. “In the Arab and Muslim community, I feel that we need to make another step forward, because the art scene isn’t completely open yet. We need to push a bit, shake the people up a bit.” The conspicuous showing of his work in public is his solution to this. “When you paint on the street, it’s like you’re taking back the public space. Why do they call it public space if you can’t paint in it?”
This highlights the significance of eL Seed’s performance-based exhibition at Harvard. It both connects undergraduates to a distinctly different form of Islamic art and prompts them to reevaluate stereotypes they may currently hold. “The arts humanize and give [us] a very different lens to view the Arab world than just looking at things with the view of political conflict,” says Asani.
But ultimately for eL Seed, functions of politics and public art aside, calligraffiti is most importantly a form of artistic expression that empowers the Arabic community. “I’ll keep bringing my message to people and I’ll keep doing my art the way I want to do it,” he says.
—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.