On September 5, Leila Heller Gallery opened "Calligraffiti 1984/2013," an updated version of the original 1984 exhibition with the help of Jeffrey Deitch. Of the artist eL Seed, who contributes two pieces to the show, Deitch told the New York Times, “He is in a very genuine way working in this fusion between a calligraphic technique coming out of Arabic script and an awareness of international graffiti language. When we did the show originally in 1984, there wasn’t anyone like this. [Now] there is this actual fusion of the two traditions.”
eL Seed's two pieces in the exhibition, The shape of the city changes faster the heart of a human being and In the desert of language, calligraphy is the shad where I rest, are reflective of pieces he's done before, including the 2012 Jara Mosque in Gabes, Tunisia, where he painted the mosque to inspire post-Arab Spring debate with a permanent 57-meter-high mural. He painted a quote from the Qur'an about tolerance and respect for one another. Earlier this year, he was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority to paint tunnels in Doha on Salwa Road, where he involved the community in creating 52 pieces for the walls.
We sat down with eL Seed at Leila Heller Gallery to talk about the importance of updating the "Calligraffiti 1984/2013" exhibition, Jeffrey Deitch, and his most recent projects.
As told to Cedar Pasori (@cedar)
Doing graffiti is a form of calligraphy.
How were you approached to do the second version of this show?
I am honored. I knew about the show from the '80s, but I never found any documentation, nothing about it. When Leila Heller Gallery approached me about it, I thought it was cool, especially to be a part of it with pieces that were shown 30 years ago from Basquiat, Keith Haring, Shoe, LA2 and others. I was really flattered.
When you were younger, were you look at the work of Haring, Basquiat, and Twombly?
Yes, yes, yes, and Shoe as well. I was looking at Shoe, because of his approach the calligraphy and because he was mainly in Europe. It feels good being featured beside people like them. That’s my point—my work is featured and that’s cool, but the credit goes to those people. I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing today if not for the people who came before me.
Do you, like Jeffrey Deitch, feel that calligraphy and graffiti are meeting in ways they never have before?
In a sense, I think calligraphy and graffiti have always been connected. Doing graffiti is a form of calligraphy. There's a link in beautifying the letters. I think Jeffrey Deitch was really avant-garde for doing a show 30 years ago about calligraffiti. You see the effect. Thirty years later, you see what the movement became. Now people are more aware, because there's a focus on the Arab culture and identity since the Arab Revolution. Jeffrey Deitch was a visionary, in a way.
What are the meanings behind the two pieces you contributed to the show and did you make these two for the show?
Yes, I made them for the show. Most of my canvases are inspired by work that I've already done. One of them I did in Paris and one of them I did in Qatar. I always use what I've written on a wall, because it’s relevant to the place that I painted. I use the quote, and I put it on canvas, but the canvas is not put into a context.
How has your practice evolved since you started?
I started with regular graffiti, Latin graffiti. When I switched to Arabic, I started printing my name following graffiti culture. Then I switched to writing poetry and messages inspired by the Arabic proverbial tradition.
Then I stopped signing them. I stopped writing the meaning in English or French as a way of fighting this kind of cultural imperialism, where you need to translate to people so they can understand. For me it was a way to invite people to my culture by not writing the meaning, so that the people who are really interested will try to understand. I stopped writing my name and the meaning in order to stop breaking the poetry of calligraphy. When you know what it means, you focus on the meaning and you lose the dynamism of the shape and the movement.
I stopped writing my name and the meaning in order to stop breaking the poetry of calligraphy.
What was it like to bring your work to Tunisia last year on the Jara Mosque minaret and experience the negative and positive reactions to it?
There was a really positive reaction from the international audience and media and the Tunisian audience...but not from the Tunisian media. That’s the funny thing. The only people who didn’t speak about this minaret project was the Tunisian media. I don’t know why, but after I wrote on this minaret (the message says, “Oh mankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made people and tribes so you may know each other"), I did another project inspired by these words.
I asked myself, "Who are my people?" and "Who are my tribes here in Tunisia?" I did a road trip all over the country, trying to meet those people and getting to know who they are. I was staying one, two, or three days in a place, meeting people, learning their stories, and giving their stories back to them through a wall. Since my work is recognized all around the world, I feel like I am invested in my culture and country, and I hope that I can help in any way to lift up the head of my people. Then, I can say that I have achieved something.
Do you know about the project that JR did in Tunisia in 2011, where people tore down the faces that citizens pasted on the walls? I think that is another example, when you speak of the international and Tunisian media, showing how people in other places don't understand how art gets removed, censored, or misinterpreted in other places.
I appreciate what JR does, and I appreciate his work and approach, but I think it was too early for him to come to this place. A lot of Tunisian people saw him as an opportunist, coming straight after the revolution, taking and pasting pictures without knowing the context. We had 23 years of the stupid face of Ben Ali on the walls, so we didn't want any more faces on the street. They put some posters on a wall that has been used for children's drawings, and the parents got pissed off.
He was misinterpreted by people. They didn’t understand his approach when he was bringing anonymous people and replacing Ben Ali. I don’t know him personally, but I think it was too early to do that.
For you, what is the overall effect of bringing art and religion together?
I am trying to break the wrong idea where art and religion are not connected. Islam encourages art and culture. And calligraphers always had a high status in the society. Because my art is calligraphy, it is linked to Islam. To break the polytheism that the Arab region was facing at this time, Islam forbid any human representations. That is the reason why Calligraphy got developed and reached the level of excellence we know today. Both of them are linked—calligraphy is a holy art, and Islam encouraged that.
Don't listen to people who tell you that you are not going to go anywhere with your art.
Can you talk about your commission to paint the tunnels in Doha?
It was a project commissioned by Sheikha Al Mayassawho who runs the Qatar Museums Authority. They asked me to paint 730 meters across 52 walls on the underpass. It was a crazy four-month project. I got the help of six assistants from Qatar, because I wanted to make this a committee project and not just a painting. I wanted the people who live there to come and paint, so that they could say “I left this mark, that's mine. I was a part of this project.” Maybe they will come back in two years, ten years, or five years and remember being a part of it. It was really challenging, emotionally and physically.
What is your advice for younger artists who aspire to reach people on the level that you are able reach people?
Do what you want. Do what you love, don't try to follow a trend. Use where the culture and history of where you're from to paint. Don't try to look like somebody else. Don't listen to people who tell you that you are not going to go anywhere with your art. That’s not true. Most of the time, you hear that from artists. If you hear that from an artist, just know that you are doing well.