Meet the French-Swiss artist behind Expo 2020 Dubai's giant eco-friendly land art

Guillaume Legros, better known as Saype, has taken his project across five continents

From its gleaming skyscrapers that poke through the clouds to its mega ports and man-made islands, Dubai is a city designed to be photographed by drone or satellite. Now, French-Swiss street artist Guillaume Legros, who goes by the name Saype, is making art for this aerial view, too. He painted a huge, biodegradable fresco in Al Forsan Park to mark Switzerland’s National Day at Expo 2020 Dubai.

From the ground, it doesn’t look like much: black and white splotches stretching across the grassy area. Viewed from above, however, an image comes into focus. Cast in black and white against the green of the park are two hands clasping each other in a gesture of global friendship. The mammoth fresco spans 1,500 square metres and took 21 hours to complete. It’s a fitting theme for an artist whose graffiti tag is a contraction of the words “say” and “peace”.

The fresco is part of a series by Saype titled Beyond Walls, which aims to create a symbolic human chain of interlinked hands that wraps around the globe, linking all five continents. “I think we are in a hyperlinked world and we have to find a global solution that supports people,” he said, during the unveiling of the work at Expo 2020 Dubai.

This is the eleventh stop of the project, with previous iterations mostly clustered in Western Europe and West Africa, along with Istanbul and Cape Town. Next up is the empty desert of Liwa Oasis in Abu Dhabi, with Ireland and Egypt also in the works.

The hands in Saype’s frescoes range from the likes of tennis star Roger Federer and the mayor of Paris to unhoused people he has met on the street. They come from photographs taken on his travels, which are then cropped at the elbows so that nobody, not even the artist, knows who they are and where they are from. All specificity is erased in favour of a universal gesture of solidarity that is immediately understood by all.

The artist's frescoes are not only visually striking, but in some instances, also raise awareness on global issues. In 2018, he saw a documentary about SOS Mediterranee, an organisation that rescues people in the Mediterranean. Pressure from the European Union meant that their boat was stripped of its flags. Saype decided to self-fund a major fresco in Geneva, depicting a little girl sending a paper boat out to sea. The ensuing buzz resulted in a Swiss parliamentary proposal to grant the boat a Swiss flag. The measure ultimately failed, but Saype had seen what his art could do.

Who is Saype?

Saype was born in a small city in North-Eastern France. Becoming a nurse took him over the border to Switzerland at age 20. He has lived there for 12 years. He is especially proud to represent his adopted home, saying “I love the country, I’ll never move to another place. Moreover, Expo 2020 represents the world, so it’s very cool and meaningful for me for this project to be here.”

Growing up, he had no exposure to art but began experimenting with graffiti as a teenager. But the artist soon realised that he needed to do something else to stand out. “I had to find a new way to grab attention because I think this is the goal of art.” So he began to paint on the grass that surrounded his parents' house.

Being eco-friendly was imperative. Saype eschews environmentally damaging spray paint in favour of a fine, powdery layer of chalk and charcoal. In some locations, he mixes in a glue made from the milk protein casein, to give his works a bit more longevity in inclement weather. The artist has previously experimented with colour, but found having to source and import pigments both difficult and expensive, and also prefers the simple contrast of his now-characteristic black-and-white. Crucially, his works are wholly biodegradable, lasting only as long as it takes for new grass to grow. He has also worked on snow and sand, noting that the latter is particularly challenging as he can’t walk on it while working on the fresco.

Sustainability, however, is Saype’s preferred way to describe his ethos. He emphasises its inherent interconnectivity. “I really think we have to see these three pillars. We can’t speak on ecology without thinking about the economy and social issues.”

Saype describes his own work as a cross between street art and land art. Also known as earthworks, the latter refers to an art movement featuring works made with natural materials such as sand, stone and plant matter and which intervene directly into the land itself. It became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is most associated with North America and Europe, but Emirati practitioners include Abdullah Al Saadi and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim.

Many earthworks are ephemeral, subject to the ravages of time and climatic patterns. Pointing to a patch where new grass has already pushed through the fresco at Expo 2020 Dubai, he explains that “in Columbia, the next day the grass was like that. [When] I painted in Russia, three months later it didn’t move.”

And while nothing stays on in nature, Saype feels his works can plant seeds in people’s minds. “I love the idea of sharing hope and optimistic messages. I now use my art to share values of togetherness and kindness, and I always say my goal is to impact minds and society without impacting nature."

Updated: November 3rd 2021, 7:40 AM