Pleasures of the Text

In 2015, French Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed travelled to Manshiyat Nasr, a ward of Cairo, and created Perception, a large-scale mural and a book project. He was especially inspired by the Zabbaleen, an informal group of workers who have collected the garbage in the city since the 1940s. The Zabbaleen take nine thousand tons of waste daily from Egypt’s capital to settlements like the one in Manshiyat Nasr, where they sort and sell the trash to factories and recycling companies.

This limited-edition book documents the mural project with numerous photographs of the artwork, along with essays, interviews, and texts by the artist. It begins with eL Seed arriving in Cairo and explaining to a local priest, ‘“I’m an artist and I’d like to create an artwork here,” continuing, “the idea is to paint on several buildings . . . so the work can only be seen from a certain point on the mountain.’” The project was ultimately a success, both in artistic terms and in what it meant to the Zabbaleen community, as one of the interviewees, Uncle Braheem, tells eL Seed: “You have made juice from the poison.” That sentiment could be translated to much of the art we see in the book. Toward the middle of the volume, there are a number of images that frame the piles of recycled garbage as if they were part of a museum exhibition. A Zabbaleen community member, Magd, says of eL Seed’s artwork, “Maybe God wanted them here to create a beautiful view in front of the church.”

el Seed's Perception mural (detail). Photo: Ouahid Berrehouma/Mahdi Khmili.
el Seed's Perception mural (detail). Photo: Ouahid Berrehouma/Mahdi Khmili.

Quotations are a key part of eL Seed’s murals. The artist translates a quote into Arabic and inscribes it, embellishing the script in colorful compositions with a palette he picks spontaneously. For Perception, eL Seed wanted to find text that would resonate with the Zabbaleen, a mostly Coptic community. He chose the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic bishop from the third century: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.” Indeed, this idea resonates with eL Seed’s calligraffiti, as he works to change perceptions of language and beauty. It’s evident that Perception was transformational for the artist and for the community.

The most striking illustrations convey the grandness of eL Seed’s endeavor, a quality that could have quite easily been missed when the sprawling, majestic mural was captured for the book. Perception both elaborates the complexity of the work within it and incites a desire to visit Manshiyat Nasr; this volume makes it clear that seeing the finished work from the top of the Moqattam Mountain would be revelatory. “Sometimes,” eL Seed writes in the epilogue, “When you experience such an intense event, you start doubting it was real.” Being a part of Perception is enthralling. eL Seed’s calligraffiti is necessarily impermanent, but his book will withstand the test of time.

Heidi Harrington-Johnson is an arts writer based in Australia.