Artist eL Seed cleans up Cairo's 'Garbage City'
Those who want to see the light, should clearly wipe their eyes first.” These may be words uttered nearly 1,700 years ago by bishop St. Athanasius of Alexandria, but it is a phrase that still rings true to this day. In fact, it is the phrase that sits at the very heart of “Perception”, the latest project from the notable Arabic artist eL Seed.
Earlier this year, for over three weeks (plus a year of planning) the French-Tunisian artist assembled a team to paint a vast mural spread across 50 brick buildings in Cairo’s Mokattam Mountain neighbourhood. The area of the Egyptian capital is infamously known as “Garbage City”, due to the fact that its Zaraeeb people collect and hand-sort through Cairo’s enormous volume of refuse. Despite the highly profitable recycling system that is run by the community, it has long been marginalised by the Cairenes’ perception of it being dirty.
“In Cairo, this community is known as ‘the people of the garbage’, which is funny because it’s what they call the rest of Cairo,” explains eL Seed. “For them, it is everyone else who is producing all the waste.”
Known for his mixture of calligraphy and graffiti — or “calligraffiti” — eL Seed’s latest self-funded project is not only his largest, but tackles the idea of how, as people, we are always too quick to pass judgement on things we do not fully understand. “People assume that just because the community chooses to live off the garbage, that they actually live in it,” he says. “That’s not true. They actually live in some super-cool apartments.”
To shed light on this incredibly close-knit community, eL Seed flew in a team of 21 people from all over the world, and over the course of three weeks created the anamorphic artwork. Looking from one spot at the top of the Mokattam Mountain, the graffiti makes a complete circular art piece.
“I included some people from the Zaraeeb community on the project because I wanted them to have a sense of pride in what we were working on. The impact was not just for the people doing the work, but also for the people who were letting us paint their walls,” explains the artist. “It was more than a painting. We played soccer with them, we were invited to a wedding, we had our meals with the community. It was a full human experience.”
"People assume that just because the community chooses to live off the garbage, that they actually live in it. That’s not true. They actually live in some super-cool apartments"
But has it helped in changing the perception of how the rest of the city views this marginalised society? “A lot of people who have never used the word Zaraeeb before are now starting to, which is a good first step to stopping people calling them ‘the people of the garbage’,” says eL Seed. “Perhaps the most important part was that because the project was totally self-funded, it surprised the people of Egypt to see what can be accomplished without relying on the state authorities. It sends a message of hope that people can achieve things by themselves. If communities come together, then we can build something great.”
And that aspect alone will go a long way towards changing perception.
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The Perception project will be showcased in a documentary later this year and published in both book and comic book format for children. elseed-art.com