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eL Seed: Can The Beauty Of Arabic Calligraphy Shift Perspectives?

Nov 10, 2017

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode How Art Changes Us.

About eL Seed's TED Talk

Using Arabic calligraphy, eL Seed paints messages of hope on the sides of buildings. He says the beauty of Arabic script — even if you can't read it — can change negative perceptions of Arab culture.

About eL Seed

French-Tunisian artist eL Seed blends the historic art of Arabic calligraphy with graffti to portray messages of beauty, poetry and peace around the world. His goal is to create dialogue and promote tolerance as well as change global perceptions of Arabic culture.

In 2016, he created a sprawling mural in the Manshiyat Naser neighborhood of Cairo that spans 50 buildings and can only be viewed from a local mountaintop. Other examples of his work can be found in his book, Lost Walls: A Caligraffiti Journey through Tunisia.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

What are you doing in New York?

EL SEED: Actually, I came to meet some people for, like, a future project that's going to happen in 2018. But it's too secret. I can't talk about it.

RAZ: Oh, you - come on, little bit - just a...

EL SEED: Let make it happen and then we'll talk about it.

RAZ: This is eL Seed. He's a French-born artist whose parents immigrated from Tunisia, and his work is actually a little like Dre Urhahn's. EL Seed paints these larger-than-life murals in poor neighborhoods all around the world. But there's an important difference.

EL SEED: I use Arabic calligraphy as my main medium.

RAZ: Arabic calligraphy - it's an art form that goes back centuries, and it basically transforms letters from the Arabic alphabet into all kinds of designs. And eL Seed sees his work as a way to change how people relate to the Arabic language and culture.

EL SEED: I'm trained, you know, with my work to be an ambassador of my culture, trying to show the beauty of it, trying to show how open-minded we are. So art can be used as a way to bring light into a community, into an idea, into, like, a subject that sometime people are, like, scared - I don't know - or, like, just don't give importance - they think it's not important to talk about.

RAZ: And eL Seed chooses specific quotes that reflect the places he's painting.

EL SEED: I try with my work, with the message that I write to create the connection, you know? So for example, in Egypt, it was a quote from a bishop from the third century originally from Alexandria in Egypt. And the quote, for example, was saying, anyone wants to see the sunlight clearly need to wipe his eyes first.

RAZ: In London, he used a quote from John Locke - in Brazil, a quote from a Brazilian poet. And in his parent's hometown in Tunisia, he painted the side of a minaret with a verse from the Quran. EL Seed told that story on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

EL SEED: In 2012, when I painted the minaret of Jara Mosque in my hometown of Gabes in south of Tunisia, I never thought that a graffiti would bring so much attention to the city. At the beginning, I was just looking for a wall in my hometown, and it happened that the minaret was built in '94. And for 18 years, those 57 meter of concrete stayed gray.

When I met the imam for the first time and I told him what I wanted to do, he was like, thank God you finally came. And he told me that for years, he was waiting for somebody to do something on it. In every work that I create, I write messages with my style of calligraphy, a mix of calligraphy and graffiti. I use quotes or poetry.

For the minaret, I thought that the most relevant message to be put on a mosque should come from Quran, so I picked this verse - oh humankind, we have created you from a male and the female and made you people and tribe so you may know each other. It was a universal call for peace, tolerance and acceptance coming from the side that we don't usually portray in the good way in the media.

I was amazed to see how the local community reacted to the painting and how we made them proud to see the minaret getting so much attention from international press all around the world. For the imam, it was not just a painting. It was really deeper than that. He hoped that this minaret would become a monument for the city and attract people to this forgotten place of Tunisia.

The universality of the message, the political context of Tunisia at this time and the fact that I was writing Quran in a graffiti way were not insignificant. It reunited the communities. Bringing people - future generation - together through Arabic calligraphy is what I do. Writing messages is the essence of my artwork. You don't need to know the meaning to feel the piece. I think that Arabic script touches your soul before it reaches your eyes. There is a beauty in it that you don't need to translate.

Arabic script speaks to anyone, I believe - to you, to you, to you, to anybody. And then when you get the meaning, you feel connected to it. I always make sure to write messages that are relevant to the place where I'm painting but messages that have a universal dimension so anybody around the world can connect to it.

RAZ: I imagine that when people see one of your murals - like this amazing Arabic calligraphy on this huge minaret - I mean, I'm sure people are, at first, just struck by the size and the beauty of it, but then they probably walk away, you know, thinking about the Arabic language differently, thinking about it as art.

EL SEED: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I hope it will do this. If it can do more, it's even better. You know, me, I remember there was a - we did a project in 2013 that was called "Lost Walls," which was, like, a road trip all around Tunisia and going into places that has a history, but people forgot about it. So I was like, let me go and dig into this history.

So we went, and I remember, there was this small wall in the city called (foreign language spoken), and I asked people who are sitting in a cafe who this wall belongs to. And the guy said, it's mine, you can paint on it; go ahead. And so I was painting. I was half done, I would say. And there's a young man with, like, an older man who came, like, screaming at me, telling me, what are you doing? Who told you to paint on this wall? Do you think I'm dead for you to paint on my wall? And I'm like, yeah, like, I can - sorry, I mean, I didn't know that was your wall. Somebody from the cafe told me it belongs to him.

He said, no, this is my wall, and you cannot do this; you need to erase that. So I was like, OK, I will do it, but please, can you just let me finish, and I will just paint over it? He's like, OK, do it, it's OK. And two hours after I was almost done, and he sent his nephew back, and his nephew was like, actually, my uncle liked that piece and asked you to keep it. So I know sometime, like, just a piece of art can just change the mind of somebody.

RAZ: Yeah, easily.

EL SEED: And I think that's the purpose of what I do. Like, you bring people that come from different parts of the world, different social class, different religious or political beliefs, and you put them in the same place. And, you know, you just blur all those differences, and what comes out is humanity.

RAZ: Artist eL Seed - you can hear his talk and see some of his amazing images at ted.npr.org. On the show today - ideas about how art changes us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.