We’re no stranger to seeing self-styled calligraffiti artist eL Seed dangling precariously in the sky, scaling minarets, or spray-painting crumbling walls in his motherland of Tunisia. His most daring works of art to date have included: a four-week road trip across Tunisia in 2013, painting poignant prose on long-forgotten buildings for his first book Lost Walls; Perception, which brought public art to the slums of Cairo in 2016; and a love letter to the emirate commissioned by Dubai Opera in 2018, called Declaration.
However, today, although we’re surrounded by grey concrete walls – in an empty office space in DIFC, for the record – we meet under very different circumstances. It’s the Dubai launch party for his new make-up collaboration with MAC Cosmetics, where he becomes the latest in a long line of creative co-conspirators from the worlds of popular culture, art, fashion, and fantasy. Previous names to have launched a co-branded line include Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Proenza Schouler, Giambattista Valli, Barbie, and Cinderella.
And, quite frankly, this was not what we were expecting from the former b-boy who grew up in the banlieues of Paris, where hip-hop culture and graffiti were his only means of self-expression. “Why not?” he laughs. “We do projects in the streets, but we also collaborate with brands when it feels right. It’s all about balance.”
It’s been six years since a collaboration has felt right for eL Seed. Back in 2013, for Louis Vuitton’s Foulards d’Artistes project, he reinterpreted the storied brand’s classic silk scarf, becoming the first Middle Eastern artist to be invited to work with the hallowed French house. Consistent with all his projects, it contained an element of giving back to the community, as he also customised three iconic Alzer trunks in his signature calligraffiti to be auctioned off by Christie’s in support of the Dubai-based non-profit organisation START.
However, as it transpires, this match with MAC was three years and seven months in the making. “We started this conversation on 21 August, 2015,” he recalls with the characteristic precision required to paint more than 50 buildings in Cairo that piece together to make a mural that’s only visible from one viewpoint on the Mokattam Mountain. “I remember it was my birthday when I got the call.” And what drew him to the project was that he had carte blanche when it came to creating the collection, free of creative and commercial restraints. “Make-up as art is a way of empowering people and switching perception,” he observes of where their paths cross.
Due to years of personal conflict, eL Seed’s creative calling cards are identity and heritage. “I was born and raised in France, but I didn’t really feel French because you’re always asked where you’re from. Then when you go to Tunisia, you’re not really Tunisian because you don’t know how to read and write Arabic,” he laments. “That’s the problem. People make you feel you need to decide – that you can’t be both at the same time – when national identity can be made up of many different parts.” He finally made peace with this internal struggle through his work. He explains, “I decided to go back to my roots by learning to read and write Arabic, and ironically it’s the fact that I started painting and doing my art in Arabic that made me reclaim the French part of my identity. Today, I accept I’m totally French, Tunisian, Arab, and Muslim.”
So where does MAC fit into this conversation? “Make-up for certain people helps them define their identity. They define themselves by looking a certain way,” he responds. And where can we see eL Seed’s identity come through in this collection? “Beyond the calligraphy, the colours I’ve used in this collaboration are iconic for me. They represent my universe, my world, and that’s why having this super-bright pink was important for me.” Anyone who’s seed the bright pink door of his studio in Al Quoz, or the 3D script of Declaration in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa will attest that pink has been a leitmotif throughout his life and work, and this collab with MAC is no exception. “I don’t think we should ascribe colours to certain genders. I’m taking back pink,” he announces.
This is all very well, but we have MAC Senior Artist Mariam Khairallah to thank for toning down the orange and yellow tones he initially had in mind, and ensuring the saturated shades popping in el Seed’s murals were made palatable for our make-up palettes. The result is four lipsticks in neutral, pink and berry shades with a matte finish; a cheek and eye palette; one calligraphy-debossed Extra Dimension Skinfinish highlighter; and a four-piece make-up brush set. Quite literally true to his word, the vibrant pink packaging is emblazoned with Arabic calligraphy based on a quote from first-century Roman statesman Cicero that reads, “The face is a picture of the mind with the eyes as its interpreter.”
Eight-year-old Maya’s more at home around paintbrushes than make-up brushes, just like her father. “My daughter’s been painting with me since she was akid. She follows me, she’s part of me. We even painted a wall together a few months ago in Tunisia.” So will Maya be wearing the MAC x eL Seed lipstick he named after her? “I think she’s too young for make-up,” he frowns. And with that, enigmatic as ever, he disappears into the crowd, as the DJ plays old-school hip-hop. Perhaps those headspins he perfected during his breakdancing days might come in useful after all?
• For more info visit maccosmetics.ae/mac-x-el-seed
Photos: Supplied and courtesy of the artist