Q&A with eL Seed: Changing perceptions

The Coptic community of Zaraeeb have been given the name zabaleen (or garbage people) because of their profession — collecting and sorting by hand the daily rubbish of Cairo. But the recycling work they carry out is not only highly profitable — it is a vital service in a city that produces around 14,000 tons of solid waste daily. For this reason the people of Zaraeeb don’t see themselves as the dirty ones — the real mess is Greater Cairo. It’s a matter of perception.

“We aren’t the zabaleen, they are — the rest of Cairo is.” This reported sentiment stands out in eL Seed’s discussion of his new self-funded project Perception in the Zaraeeb neighborhood in Cairo’s Manshiyet Nasser district.

Perception is monumental — an anamorphic artwork that covers more than 50 buildings, involved a team of 22 people, and took three weeks to paint. The large circular design, painted in the “calligraffiti” style eL Seed is renowned for, can only be viewed in its entirety from one specific point at the top of the neighboring Mokattam mountain.

As with many of his works, Perception uses a quote as the basis for an elaborate, interlinking Arabic design, this time from Saint Athanasius of Alexandria: “Anyone who wants to see the light clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.” Adding to the visual spectacle of the work, but also demonstrating the importance of the community in the creation of the project, the image was painted with fluorescent white paint that was illuminated for one night only when it was completed — a gift to the neighborhood that has given so much to Cairo.

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eL Seed

Although images of the project were leaked earlier on social media and went viral, eL Seed officially unveiled Perception on March 17 at Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum. Here, in his first interview after his talk, the 34-year-old French-Tunisian artist discusses the human side of Perception, how the project has marked a turning point in his career, and his hopes for future projects.

Aimee Dawson: The community of Zaraeeb was the starting point for Perception. You said that when you started the project all the buildings were numbers and then over time each building became associated with the people you met there. Can you talk a bit more about these people?

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eL Seed

eL Seed: In the beginning it was just an artistic project, but it became a human project. We painted more than 50 buildings so they all had to be numbered to work on. But each building is now like a memory, a story that happened in each one. The buildings became “the house of Uncle Bakheet, Uncle Ibrahim, Uncle Eid” and so on — each person had their place. The film we made of the project starts with the children running under the filming drone and my eyes were fixed on the little girl at the bottom of the screen – her name is Manaa. She was the key of this project — this little eight-year-old girl who would come and welcome us every day, so happy to see us, and when we left she was crying like crazy. It’s like we all adopted her.

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eL Seed

I think that is what brought the human side to the project. This is something that is particularly important when you’re in a place like we are today — at Art Dubai — where you are often missing the humanity. When you work in the streets, you see the humanity and you create human experiences. That was the point of this project beyond the technical challenge.

AD: This idea of connecting with people is increasingly becoming a feature of your work. When we last met in London, you were completing a commission for Shubbak Festival, where you used a quote from John Locke to reflect on the terrorist attacks in Sousse, Tunisia. But Perception really involved a collaboration with a community — the work was for the community as much as it was about them.

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eL Seed

eS: There was such an interaction with the community. You think that you are leaving something in a place, but when you leave you realize that, in fact, they have left something with you — they leave their mark on your life. That’s the most memorable thing. The technical challenge is an achievement but the memorable thing is the experience.

AD: This idea of ownership of a work is one of the reasons why you don’t tag or sign anything you do?

eS: You go to places that belong to people and a community living there and as a traveller you only come and pass through. I think signing a work in the streets, for me, is like a dog peeing to mark his territory. I want my work to be more like a gift. It’s a symbol of giving back to the community rather than taking it for yourself. I think the signature is already in the work. Also, for me, signing Perception would have been weird — there were 21 people working on this project. And which wall would I have signed?

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eL Seed

AD: You said that you don’t consider Perception a finished work yet because there is going to be a documentary and a book made. But a lot of the project in itself was in the making of it — it took a lot time and a lot of effort. In that sense the project is almost like a performance — with less focus on a final product than on the method and production. There were so many people involved and a level of documentation unlike your previous projects.

eS: It is important to document this kind of project — this is what we will keep not only as a legacy but as a memory for the people who live there and for us. It will be important to see this documentation in two years’ or even 10 years’ time. Even seeing the final video of the project just now, when it was only a few days ago that we were there, you see all these little moments that come back to your mind.

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eL Seed

AD: You were saying this work has really been a turning point in your career. Do you think it will be hard to go back and do something smaller and less complex now?

eS: For me, the most important thing is the meaning. This was an anamorphic piece, where you can only see the piece fully from one point of view, which was symbolic of the project. The idea behind it is that sometimes you have to change your own point of view about a person or a place or an idea. For me this project was like jumping without a parachute — I had never tried this before and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it. I was super scared. I was so nervous before I left but, thank God, it all went well.

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eL Seed

AD: We were at your studio at Al Serkal, Dubai, yesterday, which has now been open for three months. You relocated to Dubai in December — how are you finding the art scene here?

eS: It’s new and there’s this excitement and positive energy in places like Al Serkal. You can see lots happening and people coming from all over the world to attend things like Art Dubai, for example, or to visit galleries like Leila Heller from New York, which is now the biggest commercial gallery in the Middle East. So when you see this you want to be part of the story and this is why I am here. I first came to Dubai for an artist residency in 2013 and now I’m back. It is important to encourage and to give credit to this place — its not just what we think when we hear the word “Dubai.” People think it’s just shiny and bling-bling but it goes deeper than that. Again, it’s all about perception.

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eL Seed

AD: I think the Global Art Forum is the perfect example of that — in the middle of this commercial art fair there is a critical space that goes deeper into the questions that surround the art that is here. But speaking of commercial art — are you going to be selling more pieces now that your studio is open?

eS: Yes, because selling work — and commissions for projects like the one for Shubbak Festival in London in 2015 — is how I fund projects like Perception. It was a self-funded project.

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eL Seed

AD: You mentioned that you were working on future projects. Any hints?

eS: There are a few things that we are thinking about — there is an internet project that will launch in the next few months.

AD: That’s interesting — you’ve not done a lot of web-based work. Is this another experiment?

eS: We are always thinking of things that are new and different and you have to always challenge yourself. I don’t think I’ll do another project like Perception for two or three years because it takes a lot of energy. We are thinking about a new project in India, though — but we will see.

All photos courtesy eL Seed.

Aimee Dawson 

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