BEIRUT

Culture

Forgotten stories spray painted to life

BEIRUT: Graffiti has a particular resonance in the Arab and wide Muslim world that it lacks in the West. The form’s nonfigurative, textual slant – rooted in “tagging,” the street artists’ ornate renderings of their own “pen names” – means the work of more accomplished artists can echo calligraphy, the mainstay of classical Islamic tradition.

One of those to note this formal, if not historical, relationship is U.S. art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch. A recent director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Deitch has bent his expertise to the preface of to “Lost Walls,” a photo record of the work of Franco-Tunisian street artist eL Seed.

“I had hoped to find an artist who combined the street culture of graffiti and the tradition of Arabic calligraphy, but such an artist did not exist yet,” Deitch writes. “We had to wait for the emergence of eL Seed almost 30 years later.”

Launched earlier this year during Art Dubai, “Lost Walls” depicts eL Seed’s journey through parts of Tunisia that remain unknown to foreigners. The artist penned the book in collaboration with other writers, each of whom was asked for their opinions about street art and eL Seed’s version of graffiti in particular.

The project was born in 2012, when eL Seed decided to reconnect with his roots. “Lost Walls” is thus a record of his voyage of discovery.

“[His] artistic vision is also a personal vision,” writes Deitch, “one that developed from his multicultural background and his own exploration of cultural identity.”

Over the book’s 150-odd pages, eL Seed takes his reader through Guelala, Douz, Kerkennah, Tataouine and El Kef and a number of other towns. His aim wasn’t simply to juxtapose street art with scenic rural locations, but rather to situate it upon (often abandoned) structures in those parts of the country that are well off the beaten track of Tunisia’s pre- and post-Arab Spring narratives.

“The people of Tunisia now face the challenge of reimagining and recreating this land,” writes Amel Djait, “an unforgettable destination along the Mediterranean.”

EL Seed uses all manner of Tunisian structures for his canvas, from synagogues to houses, from desert walls to old bunkers. He met many people as he trekked across the country – residents of small coastal towns and inhabitants of the arid south, from a fisherman to an elderly desert dweller, who tells him the desert must been seen as a woman.

The artist learns of Tunis’ lost traditions, myths and ways of living beyond the reach of consumerism.

In Guelala, for instance, where Arab and Berber cultures mingle, one the artist’s calligraffiti had “to call for reconciliation between the two cultures.”

By taking the time to actually talk with the residents of the towns he alighted upon, to learn the history of his locations, eL Seed’s project is rather less solipsistic than a work of this kind might otherwise be. For all that, he says his works are not sketched or “preplanned,” but emerge from his talent and his conversations with his hosts.

Each work bears a message – whether universal, addressing the people he met or linked to the heritage of his location.

On the minaret of Gabes’ Jara Mosque, eL Seed sprayed a scriptural message that speaks to everyone: “Oh mankind, we have created you from male and female, and have made you into people and tribes so that you may know each other.”

Eventually eL Seed approached his family’s hometown of Temoula, where he painted “The history and the origin” and “Temoula, land of my Ancestors.”

“EL Seed’s calligraffiti,” writes artist Selima Karoui, “finds its fuel in people’s history and stories, without falling into anecdote.”

The age-old practice of writing and drawing on walls has come to be viewed in various terms over the centuries – from “vandalism,” revolutionary or not, “commodity” with chunks of Banksy-adorned concrete being purchased, hauled-off to the auction hall and sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

EL Seed’s book takes this evolution to a new level, unveiling a side of Tunisia that has been enclosed by dictatorship, overshadowed by globalization and revolution.

EL Seed’s “Lost Walls” is published in English by From Here to Fame, and is available on Amazon.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2014, on page 16.

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