“Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”
Over the course of three weeks, this sinuous “calligraffiti” mural painted across 50 brick buildings has slowly taken shape in Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser ward better known to the world as the infamous “Garbage City.”
The fetid slum, home to some 60,000 Coptic trash pickers in Egypt’s capital, was a curious location for the celebrated French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, who has tagged buildings around the world with his graceful, evocative Arabic calligraphy-based art. The artist told Quartz he wanted to bring world attention to the contrast between the success of the community’s recycling efforts and their surroundings.
“I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences,” said the 34-year old artist who refashioned a poignant quotation from the third-century Coptic bishop Saint Athanasius of Alexandria into the mural’s circular design.
“The Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. Still, the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated,” he wrote on his website. The residents of the Naser ward, without electricity or running water, eke out a living by sorting and reselling 80% of the garbage they collect. Their efforts were vivified in the 2009 documentary Garbage Dreams.
Titled “Perception,” the mural is a kind of optical trick. Its shape and message becomes legible when viewed from a specific spot on nearby Moqattam Mountain. The design illustrates the project’s message about shifting points of view, said eL Seed who spoke to Quartz from Dubai. The mural for Cairo’s outcast community is his largest and most ambitious to date.
This drone video that eL Seed shared with Quartz shows the breadth of the project:
Strapped into harnesses and balancing on blue scaffolding, eL Seed and his crew of 40 painters scaled the area’s brick buildings and worked undisturbed throughout the project. Unlike other famous street artists such as Banksy who work anonymously, eL Seed always asks permission from the walls’ owners. eL Seed says he felt embraced and protected by the marginalized “Zabbaleen” (Arabic for “garbage people”) who he characterized as “generous, honest and strong.” Residents offered him and his crew water, tea, or bread—a level of kindness from some of the city’s poorest that he hasn’t experienced elsewhere.
Before starting the project, eL Seed visited the slum, “showed his face around,” and sought the blessing of the area’s religious leader Rev. Father Samaan Ibrahim. “We got the blessing of the priest so everyone welcomed us,” he explains. The area’s 15,000-seat Saint Sama’ans Church (also referred to as the ”cave church”) where Rev. Ibrahim ministers to the largely Coptic Orthodox population is the among the biggest churches in the Middle East.
Since he unveiled the finished painting on Instagram two weeks ago, eL Seed’s masterpiece has been celebrated by street art fans worldwide, with photos of the mural circulating on social media. The residents have been moved by a project that has brought color and attention to the forsaken part of the city. They did hope that eL Seed and his crew could paint more buildings, the New York Times reported.
eL Seed said that the art project was perhaps just an excuse for human encounter. His most memorable takeaway was a lesson in generosity: “I was most impressed with the way they educate their kids,” he says. “When you first offer them a piece of chocolate they refuse it because they’ve been taught that others might need it more than they do.”
Correction: The title of eL Seed’s piece is “Perception” and not “Perspective,” as previously noted.