Changing Perceptions Through Calligraffiti
International Artist eL Seed Brings the Light to Manshiyat Nasr
Paris-born artist eL Seed has works gracing every continent, and his acclaim is far-reaching. So, how then did he come to create an iconic visual project in one of Cairo’s least privileged neighbourhoods? Cairo West Magazine set out to learn more.
CWM: What is the message inside your calligraphy?
ES: The essence of my artwork is that it is a form of Arabic poetry. It manifests as bold graffiti, and is situated where it can most effectively send out a message of hope, peace and unity. I seek to create beautiful works of art that need no translation, even if people don’t understand it, they can feel it. I believe that Arabic script connects with the soul before the eyes decipher it, it doesn’t need translation. Just as music is universal, my art can be appreciated by any culture.
How did you come to select Manshiyat Nasr for your latest project?
The area first came to my attention in 2009 when 300,000 pigs were slaughtered, based on the assumption that they could carry the swine flu virus. As they were a main source of livelihood for the large community of Coptic Christians, I could understand what an effect this would have. It was some years later on a trip to Cairo that I made a visit to Saint Simon Monastery, in the Mokkatam area, which is elevated above the city. The church itself is located in a cave which delves deep inside the actual mountain.
The drive there led through the noisy, congested and odorous alleys of Manshiyat Nasr, also known as the area of the zabaleen or garbage collectors, but somehow it still seemed to have its own sense of industrious organization. Looking down from the elevated level, I felt that this marginalized community deserved to be respected, to have the perception of being dirty or unclean changed.
Every art project I create must be relevant to that place or community, and it seemed to me that the words of the 3rd century Coptic Bishop, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first”, seemed to resonate with Manshiyat Nasr. This is how, with my team of artists, along with help from members of the local community, I created a continuous mural with these words that encompasses the facades of over 50 buildings.
How did the residents of the community respond to the concept?
I had been told that the one person who could convince the residents was Father Seman, from church I had visited. Once I had explained the idea to him, he was enthusiastic about getting their agreement. At first they didn’t really get the point, and the level of communication was limited. However, in a short while we got to know everyone by name and felt embraced and welcomed by the residents. Their hospitality and warmth was immense, even to the extent of proffering glasses of tea from windows of each level as we worked our way up the facades. Maybe that is why it took us a whole three weeks to get finished, it was all of those tea breaks!
What impact has the artwork had on the area?
To be visually appreciated in its entirety it is best viewed from the heights of Mokkatam. But from every perspective it has something new to offer. It is said that, “To see something clearly, sometimes you need to change your angle”. Our project has thrown light, or nawartuna, on a community worthy of admiration for their tireless efforts in recycling the garbage of Cairo’s millions. Not only as the fluorescent white detail of the painting catches the lights of the surroundings, but also through the attention already garnered from all over the globe.
Do you consider your work a passion or a job?
I think I can sum that up by saying that Manshiyat Nasr was the most amazing project and human experience I have ever lived through. One resident, Uncle Ibrahim, who I got to know well during those weeks, made a long overdue trip to Mokkatam to view the finished work. His words, “This is a project of peace and unity that has brought people together”, will remain with me.
eL Seed recently exhibited at Art Talks gallery in Zamalek, showcasing lithographs and canvases with his distinctive, bold turquoise, ochre, black and white calligraphy, extending the message of that iconic statement in the heart of Manshiyat Nasr.
“This is a project of peace and unity that has brought people together”
“To see something clearly, sometimes you need to change your angle”