A Painted Message of Peace for Cairo's Garbage Collectors

Street artist eL Seed paints a diamond in a rough neighborhood.

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Apr 5 2016, 1:30pm

All images courtesy eL Seed

An anamorphic art piece by eL Seed covers 50 buildings with Arabic calligraphy in sunset shades on the Manshiyat Nasr neighborhood in Cairo, making the marginalized, garbage collecting community of the Zaraeeb one of the most viral artworks shared on Instagram last week. The project, Perception, revolves around a painted quote by Saint Athanasius, a Coptic Bishop of the 4th century, that reads, “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly, needs to wipe his eyes first.”

The French-Tunisian artist eL Seed is known around the world for imbuing street art with messages of hope—what he calls “calligraffiti”—in every city he choses to paint in, from favelas in Rio de Janiero, Brazil to shanty towns in Cape Town. EL Seed hopes that this project in Cairo breaks misconceptions and “clears up the wrong ideas” people may have about the Zaraeeb or the Zabaleen, a people who are historically disenfranchised not only for being Coptic Christian in a majority Muslim country, but for the tedious task of collecting and sorting the city’s trash.

In a TED Talk, eL Seed tells the audience, “bringing people, culture, generations together through Arabic graffiti is what I do.” His “calligraffiti” messages have universal meaning through uplifting sayings and poems. His pieces bring together otherwise forgotten, alienated, or misunderstood communities.

He says, “We live in a time where our differences bring us apart. We misjudged people or communities with wrong ideas. It was important for me to talk about this.”

eL Seed worked with the local religious leaders to gain trust and access to locals who would eventually invite the artist into their homes and grow found of the attention. The project is an impressive and courageous undertaking as it proceeded without government permission. The self-funded project took place over three weeks time with 21 people executing the painting and organization of the public artwork. The crew painted everyday from 8 AM to 7 PM, tracing the piece over brick walls.

The artist tells The Creators Project, “I took a picture of the area I wanted to paint. I sketched the piece on a paper. I applied on the picture in Photoshop and then I zoomed in. Printed each buildings and then traced the calligraphy.”

The result is a puzzle of bright paintings that become a whole composition from the vantage point of the St. Simon cave church, the focal place of worship for Coptics, perhaps instilling that community pride in their home and educating the rest of the world on their political place in history.

In 2009, the documentary Garbage Dreams contextualizes the community as "far ahead of any modern 'green' initiatives, the Zabaleen survive by recycling 80 percent of the garbage they collect. By comparison, most Western garbage collecting companies can only recycle about 20 to 25 percent of the waste that they collect.” The Zabaleen trash collecting system has received funding from the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, and Oxfam for specific projects to study and improve the recycling of solid waste around the world.

eL Seed  hopes his public art pushes a more positive spin on the neighborhood. “I hope the project will bring light on the community of Zaraeeb and show the importance of those people in Cairo’s everyday life. I hope that the project will push everyone to wonder twice before judging someone.”

To learn more about the artist, click here

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