Contemporary artists don’t generally have an easy time in Egypt, but the country’s draconian laws haven’t stopped one courageous painter from pursuing his heartfelt vision. Toiling in the heat and stench of an impoverished part of downtown Cairo, he could never have known how far his work would go in transforming public perceptions – and, indeed, his own.
Described as a “visionary” by Condé Nast Traveler, eL Seed has long been an advocate of peace and social justice. A son of Tunisian immigrants, he was born and raised in the Parisian suburbs – a different kind of urban sprawl to that of Cairo, as pictured here.
“Calligraffiti” – a hybrid of Arabic calligraphy and urban graffiti – is the name of his chosen art form. It represents the unique synthesis of eL Seed’s diverse cultural heritage – a marriage of European and Middle Eastern aesthetics.
The artist’s previous work was as ambitious as it was high profile. In 2012 eL Seed painted the sides of Tunisia’s tallest minaret with a poignant Quranic verse. The following year he was then entrusted by the Qatar Museums Authority with painting the tunnels on Doha’s Salwa Road.
Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser neighborhood was the canvas for his latest project, “Perception.” Impoverished, marginalized and overcrowded, it was the ideal place to broadcast a powerful message about prejudice and preconception.
The idea for “Perception” came to eL Seed in April 2015; when it did he immediately messaged a friend. The subsequent sketched design of the mural looked like an elegant knot of colored threads.
The mural was complex and beautiful but, unlike his other pieces, wouldn’t be confined to a single wall or building. For eL Seed’s piece to work, it would need to cover nearly 50 structures on the Manshiyat skyline.
And while he may not have sought permission from the Egyptian government – doing so would have been futile – eL Seed did consult the local Coptic Christian community. Fortunately, they approved of his plans.
After receiving the blessing of the local priest, eL Seed and his team of 20 painters set to work. They erected scaffolding and harnesses across Manshiyat before transforming the ward’s red-brick walls with brightly colored paint.
The crew worked tirelessly, often late into the evening, despite the challenging conditions – bad smells had to be gotten used to, while wandering livestock had to be dodged. Nonetheless, eL Seed’s experience in Manshiyat was overwhelmingly positive.
“The Zaraeeb community welcomed my team and I as if we were family,” the artist wrote on his website. He added that that the project was “one of the most amazing” experiences he’d ever had.
“Every time we go to a new building,” eL Seed told Tech Insider, “we don’t know what to expect.” “You reach for one ledge and someone offers you some tea and food. It’s always a positive attitude, and that’s what we tried to absorb.”
The project took three weeks to realize. Up close, “Perception” resembled a mad chaos of color without any form or unity; the artist’s work was not, however, designed to be viewed from the ground.
To appreciate its message, the finished piece must be viewed from a specific site on the slopes of Muqattam Mountain. From here viewers can observe the words attributed to a third-century Coptic Bishop, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
“Anyone who wants to see the sunlight needs to wipe his eye first,” the saint once said. In other words, to perceive the truth we must first remove our prejudices and preconceptions.
Indeed, objects appear differently when viewed from another angle. The “slum” of Manshiyat, for example, is actually a complex working community that makes its living by sorting and recycling garbage.
“They have been given the name of Zabaleen (the garbage people),” eL Seed wrote, “but this is not how they call themselves. They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the ones who clean the city of Cairo.”
The reaction from audiences to the visionary artist’s work was overwhelmingly positive. “Totally amazed,” tweeted the Embassy of Egypt in Washington, D.C. “Beautiful and honest words,” wrote one Egyptian woman on Facebook.
The artist himself was also transformed by the experience of creating his mural. “They [the community] changed my perception,” eL Seed told Tech Insider. “We should still have humility, and this is what brings us together.”
In time, new buildings may rise to obstruct the view of his mural, but for now eL Seed is unfazed. “It’s just a piece of art that captures a moment,” he explained in his Tech Insider interview. “It’s the story behind it that I think is more interesting.” In these times of prejudice and intolerance, the world needs more artists like eL Seed.