Reconciling Identity Complexity Through Arabic Calligraffiti

The narrative that French-Tunisian artist eL Seed expresses is one that speaks to a growing number of people in today’s modern, globalized world. On Sunday, November 12, the visiting artist-in-residence spoke to a room full of people at Perry World House as part of Al-Bustan’s (DIS)PLACED initiative.

His story is one that Iand many others in the roomcould relate to on a very personal level. eL Seed was born and raised in the suburbs of Paris, but at the age of sixteen struggled deeply with an identity crisis that would influence how he expressed himself through art. Feeling alienated both by a lack of acceptance in French society and a lack of connection with his Tunisian roots, he pushed himself to explore his Arabic heritage by learning the language and script more fully. He began creating his own brand of “calligraffiti” -Arabic messages written in a calligraphic style- that he has created on many public walls around the world.

Ironically, his exploration of this art form led him to more fully embrace his French identity, recognizing that the lack of formulaic rules in his writing of Arabic script that has been both controversial and groundbreaking was due to the influence of his French upbringing.

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eL Seed and Conrad Benner discussing displacement, community representation & involvement through artamong other relevant topics. Photo courtesy Chip Chip Colson.

This careful intersection of identities–Muslim, French, Arab, and Tunisian–is captured beautifully in eL Seed’s journey from rejection to acceptance in his work. The narrative of a “Third Culture Kid”someone who is raised in a culture different than that of their parents’, and the particular challenges that it posesis one that I too am learning to cope with.

As the Muslim daughter of a French and Pakistani-British couple who was raised predominantly in the United States, I was struck by the power of eL Seed’s work as it allowed him to deal with feelings of alienation as well as fully embrace his own heritage. My own experiences have also given me insight into the way our own particular brand of mixed heritage allows us to occupy and be accepted in various spheres and cultures. The identity crises that shaped eL Seed as an adolescent has allowed him to empathize and represent the struggles and triumphs of people from the favelas of Brazil, to the garbage-collectors of Egypt, to his latest piece at the de-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.

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eL Seed recounting various projects he worked on across the globe. Photo courtesy Chip Colson.

Throughout his conversation with Philadelphia-based art blogger Conrad Benner, eL Seed expressed a strong commitment to the transformative powers of art. Although stating that most artists have a social sensibility, eL Seed noted that artists who paint on the street in free space tend to be particularly motivated by the goal of unity. In his travels, eL Seed’s paintings serve the purpose of uniting disparate communities or highlighting under-resourced ones. Painting for him is an opportunity for communication and connection within communities, what causes him most to thrive and grow as an artist is the conversations that his work inspires- to the point that he paints in a studio with no door in Dubai. Throughout the process of connecting with the communities he paints in, he hopes to encourage the democratization of art.

eL Seed paints phrases in Arabic because he believes it to be a script that you “see with the soul before you see it with your eyes,” but paints a message accessible to everyone that extends beyond his experiences and identities. He does not claim, however, to change the lives of the communities he paints in, but rather to have been changed by these communities. I look forward to seeing the connections and stories that he helps to forge in Philadelphia, as he works on his mural in West Powelton this week!


Anisa Hasan-Graneir 
Al-Bustan Intern, Majoring in Health and Societies with Pre-med
University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020

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