S1E5: eL Seed: Changing Perceptions through Art

February 9, 2022
In this episode, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks to French-Tunisian artist eL Seed about his unique public art pieces in “calligraffiti” ― a blend of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti.

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In the fifth episode of Creative Development with IFC, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop talks to French-Tunisian artist eL Seed about his unique public art pieces in “calligraffiti” ― a blend of Arabic calligraphy and graffiti. They also discuss the artist’s recent exhibit at the Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, where eL Seed was the only male artist to participate in the exhibit, and why it’s so important for men to get behind the cause of gender equality.

Highlights from Episode 5


This is a podcast of the International Finance Corporation.

Makhtar Diop (MD): Hello, and welcome to the podcast, Creative Development with IFC. I'm your host Makhtar Diop. Today, I'm delighted to welcome eL Seed, a French-Tunisian artist who uses “calligraffiti”—a form of art blending graffiti with the ancient art of calligraphy—to spread messages of peace and unity across the globe. From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and more recently, Nepal, eL Seed brings people together and fights stereotypes through his art.  Bonjour and bienvenue to the Creative Development podcast.

MD: eL Seed, it's nice to see you and have you and thank you very much for coming to our podcast. You are one of the great artists which are part of this “calligrafitti” movement. So how do you define your art? Do you agree with those people?

ES: I love the abstract vandalism, Calligraffiti, if you want to define it, you have two words, you have calligraphy and graffiti. So, it's the art of calligraphy, which is like the beautifying of the script, and graffiti, which is painting in the streets mostly on murals, you know, and not in a legal way. My practice, actually, I've tried to merge both of them. I don't define today, I used to define myself as a part of calligraffiti, but I feel today has lost its meaning because everybody is doing calligraphy even on paper, more like the free hand calligraphy. As an artist I use calligraphy, Arabic calligraphy mostly, in an abstract way. So, it means that if you read Arabic, you can, if you want to see the Arabic, you will see it. But if you want to see just an abstract piece of art, you see it as well, you know. And it's funny because for the past few years now, you know, a lot of curator, you know, in different museum, they say that the abstract shape, the language, and the literal aspect.  And I've seen with most of my work everywhere, I've been working around the world, I use Arabic calligraphy, but I don't, I don't work only in the Arab world.  I think most of my work is out of the Arab world, you know, we have created pieces in, in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, I have some work at the DMZ, you know, between North and South Korea. And I use art more as a human expression. You know, I think art [calls to our] emotion, we are human because we have emotion and, and that's how I make the bridge, I think.

MD: This is great. Arabic calligraphy is so beautiful. It is just fascinating when you see the letters in Arabic. You brought a disruption as the graffiti world, urban turmoil, excitement is having that I can picture you very well in Paris between these two worlds, the places where you have a large community of people coming from outside France and been there for two, three, four generations who are French, like you, and who have somewhere, somehow that influence in the back of the mind. So, I like very much what you said. But what is very interesting in your work is that all that for me is what I understand is geared towards peace. Tell me more about how do you see peace in your work?

ES:  I believe, you know, that if you come to places, you know, with the right intention, people will welcome you, you know, and I've experienced it in so many places. You know, like a few years ago, I went to the township in South Africa. People are telling me, “Make sure you don't go there, you know, when you go to Cape Town, this is dangerous.” When I went to the DMZ, the same people to me, “Don't go there.” When you come to a place with the intention of creating something, you know, to highlight people from a certain community to say, people they welcome you in this kind of, hand, that you, you like showing toward them.  Like you're giving your hand to them, you know, like you, and that's how I think I express peace by meeting people and by creating, trying to create beauty in their place, even if I don't know them.

When I went to the Cairo garbage collector neighborhood two years ago to do this project on 52 façades in the neighborhood, I remember the first, time I arrived in Cairo, that was the first time I arrived in Egypt, I said to the taxi driver, “I want to go to this place.” And the guy's like, “No, we don't go there. You know, this is dangerous.” Like we're talking about. Just go and when you meet the people and when you express your intention, I mean, the feedback is different. I tell you, for example, if tomorrow I come and I knock at your door. You don't know me, I knock at your door and I say, “Maktar, my name is eL Seed. I want you to offer me a cup of water. You will give me maybe like some snacks. After three days you will invite me for lunch in your house and present me to your family. And in two weeks, you have your son or your daughter will get married, you invite me to your wedding.” You look at me and say like, “You're crazy, man, just get out.” But if I knock at your door and I say, “Look, I'm an artist, and I like the facade of your house outside, I would love to create an art piece in there.” And you I show you my work and you’re like, “Actually, okay, I like it. The wall is white. So, this guy's painting my wall for free. Let's do it.” And then so the first day you are gonna come, you will be intrigued and curious to see. Okay, well, what are these guys doing? The second day, you’re gonna start talking to me and ç'est là qu'on I brought you a cup of tea. After a few days, like, “Okay, come to my house, we are having lunch, we would like to have you,” And then few weeks later, I don't know if your family, somebody is getting married, you invite me and this is what happened. I'm taking this is a real story you know, like, and you create this relation with people through art you because like I said earlier, you call to emotion, art talks to our emotion, and no matter where you are from, no matter your ethnicity, cultural background religious, art speaks to you, you know. And Arabic calligraphy, I always say, speaks to the soul, not to the eye.  So even if you don't understand Arabic calligraphy, you’ll notice greater emotion, sometimes good, sometimes bad. But most of the time, I will say good.

MD: Tell me a little bit when you go to these favelas in Rio, when you go to the township in South Africa, when you go to the DMZ, and after you finish your project and art, what type of conversation do you have with people out there?

ES: Normal conversation as you can have with anybody that you will meet, for example, in a cafe. And for example, in the DMZ, when I went to South Korea, it was interesting because I met people from different generation, you know, and you know, they are intrigued to see why this French-Tunisian guy crossing the world to create an art piece here. People most of the time they don't get it. They're curious, you know, and then you explain and you say, “Look, you have something so important here, you know, like, so beautiful that I would love to understand.” And a few months ago, I went to Nepal, and I did this project with a group of women. Actually, after the earthquake of 2015 Nepali women have been leading the reconstruction of the country. So, some of them, they get training to reconstruct in work, I mean, in construction work. Some of them, they open this warehouse where they build this earthquake-resistant bricks. And so, I read an article in 2017 about them, and I was like, I need to go check it out. This is intriguing. So, I went, and I did, I found this village like three hours away from Kathmandu, where like a group of 20 women have rebuilt the full village. It was insane. And so, I did the project there. I tell them, you know, like, at the beginning, you know, like I said, Okay, I want to do a project here. I would love to have you like some not all the village, but 12 woman they helped me in creating the art piece. And you know, you speak, you laugh at the beginning, and then slowly you start knowing the people you know, like you ask them questions, and then they tell you the story. And when you hear the story, you're like, “This is amazing.” And then this woman they like with everything they've done rebuilding and living [through the] earthquake, some of them, they lost their husband, they're raising three or four kids by themselves, they build the house, you know. And what is interesting is unconsciously when you speak about building a house, anybody thinks of a man, you know, unconsciously. But when you think of building your home, you think of a woman. And these women, they build the home and the house. And when I used to tell them, “You know, your story is amazing. This is…I want to show that to the world.” They’re like, “I mean, amazing. I'm not sure I mean, we're normal.” And that's, you know, like, that's the beauty, I think. You know, that's the kind of conversation I think that I have with them, trying to show to the people that I meet to show them that they're special, because most of the time they don't, they don't see it, you know. And I remember this camel breeder in south of Tunisia. He said something actually the same reminder for years. He said, sometime you need somebody from outside to tell you how beautiful you are. And, and I think this is you know, what I'm trying to do in a certain way.

MD: I really agree with you on this.  The concept of normality and exceptionalism is sometime things, often people will come and tell you who is a big person that you admire in the world who is the person who inspired you. This is a question that a lot of us receive all the time. Obviously, there are some people who are exceptional in what they did in the world, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Sidney Poitier, who just passed away. They spark all of us, but we don't talk enough of the people of everyday people who are doing something which is just extraordinary, and show courage, resilience or creativity. We don't know to mention it and I try personally to say that whenever I can, because I think these are the people who, in reality, influence you much more than you think. And they need people like you, artists, other people, to show how special they are to the rest of the world. So, I totally relate to what you are saying.

You were the only man [exhibiting] in the Expo 2020 in the Women’s Pavilion in Dubai. What is your comment about it?

ES: I think if there is a Women’s Pavilion, today we're talking about the woman, the cause of the woman, you know, and we are speaking about gender equality, it’s because of the man, you know. I don't think our job was done properly for years and years and years, you know, so I think gender equality is not just the fight of woman, but the fight of men as well. So, we have to be included in this fight. So, for me, as an artist, you know, and as a fighter, I will say, like for this cause, you know, it was important for me and I wanted to use the Women’s Pavilion as an amplifier for the voice of this Nepali woman. So actually, the artwork that I created on the pavilion was a reinterpretation of the project that I did in Nepal with these women. So, for me, it's just using the pavilion as a platform to the woman of Nepal. And we shouldn't even question ourselves, you know, this is our responsibility as men, you know, to speak about it and to say, like, “Yeah, we are, we are the problem in this,” you know. If there is no gender equality, it’s because we are doing something wrong when something wrong has been done. And, and that's it. So, I mean, I'm involved in it. And, you know, I have a daughter, which is, she's now 11. And we talk about this a lot, you know, like sometimes she asked me, like, challenging questions, you know what I mean. And she would push me to make some decision, you know, like, in my studio, regarding gender equality. So, for example, right now, I only hire women, there's not a balance and I never noticed this until, you know, until she told me this.

MD: I didn't visit a lot of pavilions at the Expo but I visited that pavilion because for me was important and it's the first time I saw your work and I was quite impressed. And my colleagues who were there with me were all very excited about the beauty of that piece of art so congratulations.

ES: You know, for me like also being like among these women for me was a was a huge thing you know, so I'm really, really grateful, you know. For example, Laura Gonzalez, the architect who did the facade. You have this beautiful piece by, by Melanie Laurent, you know, the French actress, and, and Nadine Labaki. I mean, I hope like anybody that go visit Expo 2020 must visit this pavilion, and it's not associated to any nation. You know, it's not the French or the Tunisian pavilion, it's like, it's a universal cause.

MD: I do believe that. You testing your belief in universal principle of inclusion of equality, when you are active in a cause, which doesn't affect you directly.  Otherwise, it's easy to talk about a cause whenever it affects you. But when you are talking about something which doesn't affect you, or which you are benefiting off, like gender inequality for us men, I think that's where you’re really testing your ability to act on a universal principle of equality between human beings.

But you mentioned cities, if you were to look for what you're doing in cities, what advice would you give if I were a mayor today? And I'm thinking about developing my city or integrating art in my city? What advice would you give me as a mayor? And what would you tell me to do?

ES: I think I will say that value is not necessarily money. When you want to create art, you know, like when you try to have like your cultural and artistic program in a city, people will say like, but what does it bring you, you know what I mean? Like, what's the return on investment you know, and people forget that the return on investment, the value that you bring into a city, for example, by bringing art to it or culture is not the direct return. It's how you build community you know, the fact I’m building community maybe might bring revenue in a certain way. Me I see the power of art you know, like that sometimes people minimize it minimize the effect that it can have on people, the effect it can have on a place. A small example you know, when I did the garbage collector, you know, like the project and garbage collector in Cairo, it is still a segregated place. People don't usually go there. But when I did the project, people start going there, go on top of the mountain by the church to see the art piece. And people used to tell me like actually, like some kids that say, you know what, we used to get tips for showing to people you know, the way there. Like there was a restaurant or cafeteria by the church, more people used to come so they were like making more revenue for the community. So just by creating an art piece, you can change sometimes, the course, I mean, you're not changing the whole world. But you can change the life of a few people. and this is how I look at it. I try with what I do, I'm, you know, in a modest way, to have my contribution. People, they do it with their own stuff. Me, I do it with art. Makhtar, you do it with your own way. And so many people do it with their own way. And I think this is how we should look at it. We should not expect everything to be done by one person, each person has a power to make a little change. And that's how I look at it. And, and yeah, so if you were a mayor, Makhtar, I would say yes, focus on art and culture, because you can change the perception of people on themselves, you can change the perception of your city from outside, and you are going to bring value, first, not monetary, you’re not going to see the money straight coming back. But after a while you will see it. I advise you as as a mayor to focus on art and culture.

MD: I’m not a mayor, I’m just leading IFC, but what I would like to really emphasize is that the reason why I want people like you to come and talk to us is to inspire people with opportunities to invest and make money. But also there is more and more people in the business community who are looking at impact. And we are looking also for impact, development impact, social impact. And you have a lot of foundations, we have resources that I want to direct in that sector. I hope that this conversation for those will be hearing, listening to it will give also the opportunity to everybody to chip in that effort. Because it will require philanthropy, it will require business, it will require artists, it will require the public sector for planning all that. So, this is a conversation that I would like to contribute to and more importantly to have people like you contributing to.  A question, I know that you've been having a lot of projects in Egypt, in Korea, Indonesia, and Latin America, and so forth. So, what is your current project? And what are you working on right now?

ES: Right now actually, I just came back from Nepal, so now we are working on a documentary about it. But I'm always like thinking of the next step. I’m working on a project about identity. Identity was a subject I used to tackle like years ago, maybe when I was fighting, having this identity crisis in France. I felt that people made me feel that I was not totally French or totally Tunisian. And then I made peace with it. People they want to put you in boxes and you know, they want to define you. And so I started calligraphy and I started Arabic, I started learning how to read and write Arabic because in both sides, you know, like in France, they were telling me like “Oh, no you’re Tunisian” or “Where are you from?” You know, when I don't really speak Arabic, I’m from here, from Paris. I was born in Paris. And when you go to Tunisia, people say like, “You’re from there you’re not from here.” And then you feel that you need to make a choice between being French or Tunisian. And back in the days, I think I decided to, it would be more easy for me to be Tunisian than French because of my name, you know. So that's why I started learning Arabic and because there was something missing as well. And actually, the funny part is when I started doing calligraphy and growing up, you know, into art, I realized I will never be able to do what I'm doing today if I was not French as well, you know. So, identity is something really close to my heart, like the way of looking at how people define themselves. Identities, like many layers, you know? When I’m in the US, here in Dallas, when people ask me, “Where are you from?” all the knowledge straight because of the way I speak English. They say, “Oh you’re French?” Yeah, I’m French. It's easy, actually I became French when I moved to the US in 2006, I spent two years in New York. And that was the first time I felt fully French because people used to tell me, Oh, you’re French? I’m like, yes, you know. And for example, while I'm in Tunisia, when I'm in Tunis, I'm from the south part of Tunisia, I speak with my accent from the south to make sure that people know I'm not from the North, you know. So, identity depending on where you are, like, is higher, you know, like, a layer comes on top of the other one. So now, I'm really interested to see, to define identity in like more, in a global way. For example, when I’m in the US compared to France, you know, the US, like you're American based on value that you share with people, you know what I mean? Despite of your ethnicity, your culture, your religion, you know what I mean? Where I feel in France, I was disappointed to see like this huge debate a few years ago, where they, they were trying to define what is not to be French, you know, l'identité nationale. And it's also you know, like me as Tunisian, I'm African, but people define me always as a Middle Eastern artist, you know, because I work with calligraphy and always question people. I'm like, do you know that the word Africa is coming from our country, like the north part of Tunisia used to be called Ifrīqiyyah.  Last time I was with this art critic and two artists from Ghana and we were discussing, and I said, “Guys, you know, you see, I am for you an African artist” and you can say “yes, you’re from Tunisia. Tunisia, where is it is in Africa.” I'm like, “thank you.” And then asked me, this art critic, you know, was in my studio and say, “You see me as an African artist,” and she looked at me as like, “It's difficult to respond.” And I'm like, why? You see how people try to define you from something that and so this is a subject I'm really trying to study in, and create, like, if you have. I know aesthetically how you look like. But it's a kind of two years project. Hopefully, we're still at the beginning.

MD: Let's see, I think this is a year life project actually. It is such a complex issue of identity and everything you say resonates a lot with me. I've seen various forms of it, variants variation of it. And this is a more and more what we see in places like the US, in Europe, in Africa, you have a lot of people who are born in Europe or decide to go back to Africa and live there. When they are there was a Senegalese, Ghanaian, Malian, or French. This is the question that they always have to go back to our same problem, same question. But I think that that uniqueness that you have of your experience is what makes the world so interesting and rich. And I think that certainly not falling into any of the boxes, is what makes life interesting. So, looking at you for who you are, and what you bring into the world. A lot of beautiful things by carrying this message of peace, and showing that it comes from places which are identified are very violent and difficult. So, thank you for doing that. If you want to leave us with a last word, I don't know, for those who don't know very well your art, can you direct them to know more what you're doing so that they can really see the beauty of what you are doing and its impact on the community?

ES: We base our judgment, you know, like, on the wrong ideas, or like on our reality, which is sometimes not reality, which is just our perception. And you speak about Africa, about the people who have this, this one image. You know me, I see like last time I have a friend of mine. She works a lot. She used to be in the US, she came back to Tunisia, and she works a lot with West Africa. And we're talking about business. And she was like, I would say like, “You know, Africa is the future.” She's like, “No, no, no, Africa is the present. You’re just late.”  And I'm like, actually, this is so true. And that's I think our job at least as an artist, I'm trying to switch this perception, you're changing them. And I mean, I'm not here to educate people, educate myself first because we all have wrong perception on other people that we don't know. And this is the most difficult thing. I think this is because we are human, we judge easily. We always judge and so the thing is to recondition ourselves so we can see people from what they are and who they are truly.

MD: I will be delighted, El Seed, to do that. And I think it will be great to just chat and discuss about it and you educate me more about what you're doing and what others are doing, and just to discuss, I personally believe in the power of creative arts. I mean, what Don Cheadle, what Baaba Maal have been saying on climate change is very powerful. And maybe we reach much more people than people who were talking about it all the time. So, this is what I wanted to portray, to show that in emerging countries and throughout the world, there's a lot of creativity and creativity which can lead to business opportunities, but also it can more importantly, help change the world and bring more inclusion, more equity and so forth. So El Seed. Merci, shukran, thank you for really joining us in this conversation. And I look forward to seeing you face to face when you come to DC.

ES: Thank you, it’s an honor.

MD: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.