Art on the Wall: from North Africa… with spray cans, a pencil and a camera

Art Radar has a look at 3 inspiring young artists from North Africa.

These three internationally recognised young artists with roots in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt create art inspired by different approaches to wall art and photography.

Artwork by eL Seed, Ajman, UAE 2017. Calligraphy text by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan: "On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations." Photo: John Falchetto.

eL Seed, Ajman, UAE 2017. Calligraphy text by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan: “On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations.” Photo: John Falchetto.

For decades wall art and photography have been vibrant tools of personal expression manifested in a variety of unique ways. In North Africa they come in the form of beautifully painted shop fronts with calligraphic inscriptions, alternative methods of political campaigning, striking murals designed to inspire, and, on a different level, in a rich tradition of photographic family portraits.

This article looks into the works of three internationally recognised young artists with deep roots respectively in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, whose contemporary art has been inspired by different approaches to wall art and photography – whether it is painting on a concrete wall or hanging a photo portrait on a gallery partition.

 A mural on the Jara Mosque by eL Seed, Gabes, Tunisia, 2013. Calligraphy text from the Quran (49:13). Image courtesy eL Seed.

eL Seed, mural on the Jara Mosque, Gabes, Tunisia, 2013. Calligraphy text from the Quran (49:13). Image courtesy eL Seed.

1. eL Seed

From the streets of Paris to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the magic architecture of Dubai – the city he has called home since 2013 – eL Seed’s contemporary approach to Arabic calligraphy aims to unify people, cultures and generations. Born in Paris in 1981, from a Tunisian family, this powerful artist has first approached calligraphy when he was a child and decided to study Literary Arabic as a way of re-appropriating and legitimising his identity.

Dropping a career in business, he later started pioneering a vibrant new form of “calligraffiti” – a style originating in the late 1970s which merges graffiti and calligraphy – combining his passion for modern street art with traditions of Arabic calligraphy. He also engages with contemporary world events to stimulate discussion about politics and art, and promote tolerance between cultures. Since 2012, alongside his large scale mural practice, he has also been developing an interest in sculpture.

From the series "Lost Walls. A Calligraphic Journey Through Tunisia", by eL Seed (it is also a book published by From Here to Fame). Tunisia, 2013. Calligraphy text: “O Desert, you come to me … “. Image courtesy eL Seed.

eL Seed, from the “Lost Walls. A Calligraphic Journey Through Tunisia” series, (it is also a book published by From Here to Fame). Tunisia, 2013. Calligraphy text: “O Desert, you come to me…”. Image courtesy eL Seed.

eL Seed tries to create a dialogue with his viewers based on the location of his artwork, and the choice of the calligraphy text for it. It is the aesthetic of his unique style of calligraffiti, skillfully translating text into powerful visual articulations, that captures the eyes of the public. In what can be called his most challenging work for the political and religious context surrounding the event, in 2013 he painted a 57-metre-high mural to cover the entire concrete tower façade of Jara Mosque, in Gabes, Tunisia, in the hope of highlighting the convergence of art and religion.

eL Seed – a name inspired by the French work Le Cid, or ‘The Lord/Master’ – has works installed in public spaces, galleries and institutions worldwide, and his art has become part of the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, UAE. eL Seed has also collaborated with the House of Louis Vuitton, and in 2015 he was named a TED Fellow. Together with Bahia Shehab he was awarded the 14th UNESCO-Sharjah Prize 2017 for Arab Culture.

“+|-” series by Alia Ali, Space Gallery, Portland, Maine, USA, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.

Alia Ali, “+|-” series, 2017, Space Gallery, Portland, Maine, USA. Image courtesy the artist.

2. Alia Ali

Alia Ali is a multimedia visual artist and a fabulous storyteller born in Austria, in 1985, from a Yemeni father and a Bosnian mother. Having lived in seven countries and grown up among five languages, her most comfortable mode of communication is in her opinion through images. She has spent the last seven years cultivating her interest for visual storytelling and photography in Marrakech, Morocco, where she currently maintains a base while actually living in New Orleans, USA.

Her work reflects on the politics and poetics of contested notions surrounding the topics of identity, physical borders and mental/physical spaces of confinement. She lives at the crossroad of different civilisations. Perhaps she was not aware of this until she recently started to shoot a new series of portraits – self-portraits and portraits of her partner – where textiles mix Eastern European and Central Asian patterns, dresses are set according to Moroccan fashion, and faces have no features like in anonymous (digital) avatars.

The sensation gathered from her magical photographic portraits – usually shot on a flat background wall covered of cotton paper – is strange. Layers of fabric with vivid colours and vintage patterns capture the attention of the viewer, but only to transmute one to political thinking.

“+|-” series by Alia Ali, Space Gallery, Portland, Maine, USA, 2017. Image courtesy the artist.

Alia Ali, “+|-” series, 2017, Space Gallery, Portland, Maine, USA. Image courtesy the artist.

Her latest show, entitled “+|-”, was held at the SPACE Gallery in Portland, Maine, USA (until 31 July 2017). In this exhibition, the audience was invited to examine whether or not they can confront the characters in the portraits. Alia Ali was available in the gallery from opening to closing of the show every Thursday to meet with visitors and experience them interactin with the work. Talking to Art Radar, Ali said about te portraits that “While being visually attractive and vibrant, they are simultaneously destabilizing,” an aspect that is extended to what she labels “the ‘facts’ attached to the portraits which are all brought into discussion”. She continues:

I ask the viewer if the people behind the textiles are hiding or are they being hidden? Is it an active form of anonymity or a passive one? When confronting these ‘-cludes’, we are forced to confront the ways we include and exclude others in our daily lives. So, is exclusion motivated by a primitive fear and search for security? A form of self-preservation? A metamorphosis of the outcast into the villain?

Alia’s work has been featured at the Marrakech Biennale 2016 as part of the Swiss-Moroccan KE’CH Collective and Gulf Photo Plus Dubai during Art Week Dubai 2017. Her most recent series “BORDERLAND” has been exhibited at Mondo Galeria in Madrid, Spain, Galerie Siniya 28 in Marrakech, Morocco, and Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. She has been awarded LensCulture’s Emerging Talent Awards 2016 and Gold Winner in a Fine Art Category of the Tokyo International Photo Awards. Currently, her work is part of the collective exhibition “I AM” in Washington, DC from 5 September to 22 October 2017, then touring around the United States into 2018.

Ganzeer works on the mural “Foundations,” using house paint. For Alwan Festival – Al Riwaq Art Space, in Adilya, Bahrain, 2014. Photo: Eva Frapiccini.

Ganzeer works on the mural “Foundations”, using house paint. For Alwan Festival – Al Riwaq Art Space, in Adilya, Bahrain, 2014. Photo: Eva Frapiccini.

3. Ganzeer

Many have recognised Ganzeer as a street artist after he became popular during the 2011 Egyptian uprising for an antimilitarist mural he created in central Cairo. In recent years this Egyptian artist born in 1982 in Cairo has developed a multifaceted body of work at the crossroads of several media: video, (mural) painting, digital and print design, and publications. Furthermore, he has decided to turn to self narrative to (re)construct his identity.

Ganzeer – a pseudonym meaning ‘bicycle chain’ in Egyptian dialect – writes a personal newsletter entitled Restricted Frequency, a little essay, sent by real persons, designed to be read right inside your inbox, and written in a much more intimate, less formal tone of voice.

He is now based in Denver, Colorado, having recently moved from his previous base in Los Angeles, California, but it was in Cairo that, back in 2005, he opened his first studio as a very young artist-designer engaged in workshops and exhibitions. Ganzeer belonged to a generation of Egyptian artists working to effect social and political change with creative and alternative means of expression, which he refers to as “Concept Pop”, according to an essay he wrote in 2014 for The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

From chapter #3 of 'The Solar Grid', a graphic novel by Ganzeer, USA. 2016. Image courtesy Ganzeer.

Ganzeer, from chapter #3 of ‘The Solar Grid’, 2016, graphic novel, USA. Image courtesy the artist.

The Huffington Post has ranked him among the top 25 street artists shaking up public art in 2014. His art has been shown in Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, Jordan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, as well as in myriad Cairo galleries. Much of his street art work in Egypt done during the uprising is well-documented in the book Walls of Freedom (2014) published by From Here to Fame Publishing. Ganzeer is a longtime comics fan, as he tells Art Radar:

My brother had a lot of 70’s and 80’s superhero comics from the time that we lived in the States as children – he told me in an email conversation for an article published the Italian online magazine EastWest.eu – So I read and re-read those a lot. I would often find the occasional Spiderman or Batman comic book at the newsstand… I also found lots of superhero comics at Cairo’s used book market (Azbakeya), but again, never a complete series.

It was little surprise to his fans, thus, when he announced to work on The Solar Grid, a sci-fi graphic novel in nine chapters, appearing on an irregular basis on a dedicated website. In May 2019 it is due to become a book following a kickstarter campaign that in April 2017 raised more USD48,500. Eager to fit in the global narrative, Ganzeer is now using the medium of the graphic novel to investigate and discuss the relationship between mankind and the environment and its impact on a (metamorphic) Earth.

Elisa Pierandrei

1768

Related Topics: Tunisian artists, Egyptian artists, Moroccan artists, identity art, public art, community art

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