In 2012, Tunisian muralist and artist, eL-Seed (b. 1981, Gabès), brushed a verse from the Quran on two sides of the Jara Mosque minaret – also the tallest in Tunisia. He uses his own technique of ‘‘calligraffiti” to inspire Tunisian youth and to send a message of tolerance. Revolve talks to him about his work and inspirations as an artist.
How was it to grow up in Paris and then move and paint in Tunisia?
I kept a strong link with Tunisia while growing up, every year I spend several months in my hometown Gabès. One of my first murals was painted in Gabès when I was a teenager, and it still stands, although quite faded. There is always a sense of pride when I paint in Tunisia. Because I grew up in Paris, I felt the need to be close to my Tunisian roots and to be able to give something back and contribute in a positive way.
Which artists inspire you?
I greatly respect Iraqi artist Sundus Abdul Hadi for the difficult issues she tackles. French graffiti artist Hest1, who helped me develop the first stages of my art, and other graffiti artists like Shuck2, who started experimenting with Arabic script in the early 1990s. Of course, there is also Hassan Massoudy, an exceptional calligrapher.
And when did you discover that street art and ‘calligraffiti’ was your thing?
When I moved to North America, I started painting with Hest1 and this is when I started experimenting with style and combining my love of calligraphy and graffiti. It progressed naturally from there and I kept on trying new styles and new compositions. The whole process came so naturally, because it is my passion.
Street art has boomed in Tunisia since and after the revolution, how was it like to be an artist before 2011?
I did a workshop in Gabès in the summer of 2009 and I remember people being curious about graffiti, not having really been exposed to it. As I went back several times to paint since the revolts, graffiti really has become more mainstream. Before 2011, graffiti artists painted in an underground subculture and not much attention was paid to these artists. There were also fewer artists before the revolts, so since then art has really exploded, especially in the streets.
Civil society (political groups, students, NGOs and artists) existed before the revolution, but restrictions weighed over intellectual or artistic forms of expression, how do you view the situation now?
Tunisians are not afraid to voice their opinions now, which is a great liberation for artists to comment on society. However, there are different restrictions now, at least in the sense that you are labeled easily as being this or that, or belonging to this or that political movement, even if you have said nothing yourself. Because Tunisia is still figuring out a lot of things, and will be for the next few generations, there is a lot of tension between factions that are afraid their country will be hijacked. Within this environment, a lot of artists can be caught up in justifying their ‘side’ and attacking another ‘side’, rather than commenting and acting as a reflection or mirror of the bigger picture. This I find is a different form of restriction, or coercion.
What is your personal experience with censorship in Tunisia?
I never encountered censorship in a direct way – at least not from the government. The only constraints I felt came from individuals and groups that did not want projects to succeed for different reasons. There is still a lot of corruption in Tunisia so there are a lot of problems when you do something that is more public. A lot of groups are front-organizations that just want to put money in their pockets and pretend to be ‘reconstructing’ Tunisia when in fact they just try to put their name out there to get more funding.
Is your art a response to clashes between hardline Islamist Salafists and artists?
My art in general is not a response to this, but I have undertaken some projects with the intention of addressing this issue. For example, the minaret project in Gabès last summer was in some ways fueled by my desire to open dialogue between these two ‘camps’ and show a different way of using art and religion to move Tunisia forward in a positive direction.
How do you wish to inspire Tunisian artists?
I wish to inspire Tunisian artists to dig deeper into the psyche of Tunisian society and take a step back to look at the big picture. Authenticity and self-reflection are some of the best traits of an original artist, and this combined with a sober look at the dynamics in Tunisia today I think would really give Tunisia some great artistic leaders.
You mentioned that you liked ‘democratizing art’, how do you approach this?
I approach this simply by involving people in the artistic process. This can be in the form of workshops, internships on big projects, or it can happen organically during a project with people approaching me and wanting to help out. It also comes naturally to graffiti I think. The art is there on the streets and it’s free to look at, anyone from any segment of society can view it, critique it, like it, or hate it.
Do you believe in the power of art to break social, political and psychological barriers? Has this been the case in Tunisia, do you think?
Absolutely. I think it is partly the art itself, which can inspire, but also an artistic movement that is able to bring to light certain issues through different artists and mediums. I think the ‘artistic revolution’ came after the actual protests and revolts. Now people are using art to try and figure out where to go with this new Tunisia. It’s going to take time, but art is a great tool to test new ideas and propose directions.
This article appeared in Revolve’s Tunisia Report 2013, pages 38-41.