“There is nothing between us, nothing at all. Your eyes have tears, just like my own.”
These words by Nepali poet and activist Yogmaya Neupane have been transformed into artwork – interpreted in abstract Arabic calligraphy and magnified to stretch across the Giranchaur village.
In total, the artwork, titled Like Her, stretches 170 metres, covering the rooftops of half the houses in the small Nepali village. The artist behind the project is none other than eL Seed, whose monumental murals fuse calligraphy and street art to beam messages of peace and solidarity.
The Tunisian-French artist, who lives and works in Dubai, is one of the curators of the Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. The pavilion’s facade is a reinterpretation of the artwork in Nepal, and a video documenting the project is on view inside, detailing the story of how it began.
In the video, parts of which eL Seed also shared on his Instagram page, the artist recounts coming across an article about women in Nepal rebuilding their homes after the devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake in April 2015.
In its wake, around 9,000 people died and a million houses were damaged, leaving hundreds of thousands of families homeless.
Afterwards, reconstruction efforts made little progress. According to the United Nations, the lack of materials and skilled labour were part of the problem. That’s when Nepali women decided to become a bigger part of reconstruction efforts, learning the skills through national and international organisations and picking up tools to put homes and communities back together.
For Like Her, eL Seed wants to highlight this collective effort. Travelling to Nepal a few months ago “to witness this story with my own eyes”, the artist met with a group of 12 women from Giranchaur, a village of about 60 houses, to collaborate with them.
“I told them that I wanted to create an art project, art installation in their village with them to highlight their story,” he says in the video. Like Her bears the artist’s signature calligraphy style that continues the Hurrufiya movement, which infuses Islamic calligraphy with modern art elements, and is rendered in anamorphic format, with the overall piece best seen aerially.
“I wanted this project to be a kind of echo of their voices, to amplify the voice of these women, to tell their story, to highlight their struggle and to show to the world an amazing story of wisdom, strength and resilience,” he says.
He came across women like Binita, who the artist calls a “leader” in her commitment to the project from the start. “The life of the women in Giranchaur is full of grief, sorrow and challenge. But no matter how we have suffered, we haven’t lost my hope or courage,” she says in the documentary, also saying that she aims to inspire people. “I want them to say ‘I want be like her’”.
Life in Nepal remains hard for women, and in Giranchaur, located about an hour away from the capital Kathmandu, girls often have to stop attending school due to poverty. They eventually get married and have children, and the cycle repeats again.
eL Seed, however, takes the shape of the circle and breaks it. The work loops around the rooftops of the houses, some about five to 20 metres apart, connected by awnings propped up on pathways, but a flick juts out of place. “One letter actually comes out of the circle, breaking the shape and ‘going toward’ the future. This is a beautiful representation of what this project is about, making sure that together we can change the destiny of at least one person,” he says.
The artist explains that the corridors were created so that the local residents could interact with the artwork up-close, and not just be able to see it from a rooftop.
Like Her is characteristic of eL Seed’s previous projects, including his large-scale mural Perception in Cairo, where he painted the facades of 50 houses in Manshiyat Nasr, derisively called “Garbage City” as the community living in the area largely make a living by collecting and recycling trash.
The work tackles the marginalisation of the city's Coptic residents, bringing beauty to an area deemed dirty.
In 2018, the artist also installed a reflective metallic sculpture in the DMZ (demilitarised zone between North and South Korea). He called the work “utopic”, intending it to serve as a bridge between the two countries. The artist considers the project as unfinished until the ‘bridge’ can extend into North Korea, turning the sculpture into a materialised aspiration towards reunification. This week, eL Seed has released his new lithograph for the project.