Primary school pupils in the north of England have been scripting and exploring Arabic calligraphy, inspired by the Dubai-based artist eL Seed.
Adam Whitworth, the assistant headteacher at Westcott Primary School in Hull, used eL Seed’s work to teach pupils about building bridges among cultures.
“We are teaching the kids about tolerance and understanding, and how to be citizens of the world,” he explains. “We’re a pretty white, homogeneous British school, and I wanted to combat negative stereotypes in the media.”
eL Seed, a Tunisian-French artist whose studio is in Dubai, quotes lines of poetry and renders them as sharp-edged, flowing Arabic graffiti. His murals are familiar to those in the Emirates — it graces the Abu Dhabi Municipality Building, the Bank of Sharjah building, and Dubai Opera, among many other sites — as well as being internationally renowned. Central to his work is the promotion of understanding between cultures: in 2017, he painted a graffito on the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea, and his most famous work is a staggered graffito in the rubbish collectors’ neighborhood in Cairo.
The Westcott pupils took lines from the British poem The Highwayman and translated them with the help of Arabic-speaking pupils (and the internet). They then came up with eL Seed-style graffiti of the script. One student, Eloise, made her line of a poetry into a pinky rose; Poppy used the colours of the rainbow to fill in the lettering.
Partway through the project, Whitworth posted some examples on his Twitter feed, and tagged eL Seed.
He was amazed when eL Seed replied, congratulating the pupils. “It was incredible for the students to have the artist himself respond,” he says. “He’s like a superstar to them. We couldn’t believe it.”
Speaking to The National, eL Seed said he was surprised to see his work pop up in the north of England.
“It’s always great to see kids responding the way these kids did — especially these kids who are not in the Arab world, but in the UK,” he says, adding that he looked up Hull on a map to see whether he could visit the school on an upcoming trip to London. “It’s important to know that you have people who are trying to teach kids about other cultures. I’m always happy and honoured to see my works used in that way.”
This is Hull’s second recent brush with street art. A year ago, a work by Banksy appeared on a disused rail bridge, and quickly became a popular local attraction. Then, over the summer, the mural was defaced, and the public quickly moved to try and safeguard it.
“Like a lot of teachers, I often use graffiti as a way to engage the students in debate,” says Whitworth. “They really get motivated because it’s something a bit notorious and captures their attention. With the Banksy, the question was: can you vandalise vandalism?”
It was while he was researching the history of street art that he came across eL Seed’s TED talk, “Street Art for Hope and Peace”. In it, the Dubai artist recounts that he was once commissioned to do a mural in Paris, but had to erase his work because the man who owned the wall realized the graffiti was in Arabic. El Seed reluctantly complied.
A week later, the event organiser came back to eL Seed and told him that he could do a mural on the wall just opposite the man’s house. As the artist says in the talk, at first he was going to write “In your face,” but in the end went for: “Open your heart”.
“That’s really the message we are going for,” says Whitworth. “It’s a contentious time in our political history with Brexit, and it’s important now to promote that call for peace and tolerance.”
Whitworth adds that Hull has a rich literary heritage, with the great British poet Philip Larkin having written his best work while employed as the librarian at the university there. “We would love to take a line of Larkin’s poetry and make it into a graffiti. I want eL Seed to know that he has an open invitation of any brick wall he wants up in Hull.”