By Alexandra Hartmann | Mar 12 2014Art , El Seed , graffiti , painting
The minaret of the Jara Mosque in Gabes towers over its surroundings. Formed of golden brick, it jolts up from the flat, sand-colored cityscape around it, all the better to broadcast the call to prayer across the coastal city.
But what’s most noticeable about the minaret is not its height or architecture, but the scrawling Arabic script that dances up its facade. The mural is Surah al-Hujurat from the Quran, written in a distinct style of “calligraffiti” coined by Tunisian graffiti artist El Seed.
“Most of the time people ask me about the mosque,” said the French-Tunisian artist over a phone call from Dubai.
Though not his first in Tunisia, the mosque is one of El Seed’s best-known works, and one that helped put Gabes on the international map, at least for those following graffiti or modern art in Islam. It is among El Seed’s various prestigious projects which include a solo exhibition in Paris, a guest lecture at Harvard, and a collaboration with French fashion house Louis Vuitton. [display_posts type="related" limit="3" position="right"]
Now, the artist is preparing to release a book of his latest undertaking: public art installations of the iconic El Seed script splashed across abandoned locales throughout Tunisia.
The project, “Lost Walls,” is detailed in a book set to be released in March, but has been an idea in the back of the artist’s mind for quite some time.
“Actually right after the minaret, I got this idea of catching tourists who are coming to our cities,” said El Seed, explaining that the project temporarily fell to the wayside as other projects arose.
“It was a month before I last left – I think in June or July of last year – that I told my team ‘next month we leave, and we do it.’”
In talking to Tunisia Live and in his social media posts, El Seed is quick to highlight the spontaneous nature of the endeavor. Though the painter researched some spots he wanted to hit on the tour, he says the most memorable experiences occurred through a combination of chance and the friendliness of the fellow Tunisians he came across.
“Sometimes if I see a wall on the side of the road, I just paint it,” said El Seed.
“Whatever I write, I try to make it relevant to the place,” the artist says of his scripts. “And the colors, sometimes I try to make it a mixture so it blends into the surroundings, and sometimes I try to clash with the surroundings. I want to make sure that it comes out.”
The artist said he never asked permission from local authorities for the project, even though some officials showed interest, asking him to register with local police offices for protection.
“Inside the city you ask the people,” said El Seed. “If it is somebody’s house, you come and you knock at the door and you say, ‘okay, this is what I do, I would like to paint on your house.’ The guy says ‘ok, go ahead’ and he brings you coffee and tea and food.”
“You know what is amazing about Tunis and painting the street is these kind of things that you create with people. All the people that I met, they are the people who made this story, this book, and this journey. Without any of them I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did.”
As part of the latest undertaking, El Seed traveled to underrepresented places in Tunisia, villages just outside of major hubs of tourism and commerce and places that once held significance to Tunisian history, economy, and culture.
The facts and context about these places that El Seed provides in the captions of his Facebook photos seem like echoes compared to the vibrant stories he recounts about his experience painting.
“Akouda is a city in the Sahel region, a couple of kilometers from Sousse. In the 16th century, the Murabituns from Morocco migrated there to settle in this little town. The city is known for being the precursor to the eventual emancipation of Tunisian women,” he pens alongside the lightbox photo of him, stretching his arms to paint the curve of a letter outside a mosque in the city, two children standing in the foreground.
“Akouda was one of the last stops of the project,” El Seed explains over the phone. “I painted on the steps of the old mosque in Akouda and it is just after maghreb [prayer], you know, there were so many people who came.”
According to the artist, the crowd had varying opinions about the piece.
“They walk to the mosque and they look at you and they say ‘what’s wrong with this guy?’ They want to teach you. Some other guys they just say ‘okay’ and they help you and they come and they see what you do. And some say ‘no you shouldn’t do that’ …or ‘what you doing here? You’re not doing anything.’”
“We are in this debate about the place of art in Islam and the public space and it was moderated by a person who was really secular and with really religious guys,” he continued. “It was amazing seeing that both of them are totally bringing real arguments. It was not even a clash, more like a historical [conversation] and I loved it. I was painting, and had maybe ten or fifteen people behind me just talking.”
El Seed mentioned, though he did not make note of it on Facebook, that he returned the day after painting in Akouda to find the work vandalized.
“I came back the next day at twelve to take the picture and the wall was totally ripped, like someone got really mad at it,” he said. “It was cool actually. I was glad that it created this kind of reaction with some people.”
El Seed also traveled to Onk Jemel and Tataouine, destinations that laid the scenery for otherworldly planets in the Star Wars series and that now hold simple, abandoned film sets. These locales are often lauded as tourist attractions, and praised for bringing an influx of income to Tunisia’s south, as seen by the recent Dunes Electroniques music festival.
“I heard that there were 155 old ruins in Tataouine and only 11 are taken care of or preserved by the authorities in Tunis,” said El Seed. “And I was like ‘wow that is so bad, I can’t understand why the government is not taking care of this.’ By using that, you could make so much out of it.”
The artist said that, during his research, he continually came across websites that expounded the virtue of the old film sets, calling them “part of the Tunisian legacy.”
“I was like, how could a film set be part of the Tunisian legacy when we don’t even care about what is left from centuries ago?”
So he went to the sites to paint.
When El Seed arrived at Onk Jemel, he found an elderly man laying down, ostensibly watching the site. The man welcomed the team and in conversation, told the artist that the site doesn’t actually bring in any money.
When El Seed asked the proprietor if he could paint the site, he was astonished to receive permission without any restrictions.
He scrawled in black, angular script, “I will never be your son,” an homage to Darth Vader’s famous line to Luke Skywalker at the climax of the series.
“The point of that was to bring attention to this place hoping that people will go visit these fake film sets but at the same time, they will see the real characters of Tunis.”
In one of the most touching stories of the project, El Seed returned to his grandfather’s house in Temoula.
“When my grandfather died, they left the house and no one ever lived there,” he said. “I think I went by there in 1997 once with my cousin just to see it. It was totally broken.”
“I asked my dad and my uncle if it would be possible for me to give it a second life by painting on it,” the artist continued.
“I invited my uncle and my aunt to come with me and tell me the history of the house. My uncle said, ‘you see the palm tree over there, your dad was born there’ and they were telling me how it was during the Second World War.”
“We heard so many stories, it’s great to hear stories of your dad as a kid, you know? It was a really personal stop.”
El Seed said that the project was so personal for him, he did not ask for any outside funding.
“After painting for Louis Vuitton, I was like okay I need to do something for myself and for my country. The point of that was to bring some attention to Tunis.”
“You know, most of the time when you are watching the news it is not a positive thing,” he concluded. “I hope that these kinds of projects can bring hope and can encourage people.”