Presented by Dubai Tourism
April 5, 2022 5:47 AM EDT

The Dubai-based artist eL Seed, who draws upon Arabic calligraphy’s looping and curved shapes to create mesmerizing and often massive installations of wood, metal, glass and more, believes words are powerful—and that’s why he incorporates them into his work. One of his most recent works, for example, took the form of a giant colorful installation of painted fabric strewn across the rooftops of the Nepali village of Giranchaur, which was leveled by an earthquake back in 2015 and rebuilt mostly by local women. “There is nothing between us, nothing at all,” read the writing on the piece, quoting Nepali poet and activist Yogmaya Neupane. “Your eyes have tears, just like my own.”

Seven years after opening his studio in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue creative hub, eL Seed—whose projects have appeared everywhere from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the North-South Korean DMZ—is now at the forefront of the city’s vibrant and growing arts community. Indeed, Dubai has become a major arts hub over the last two decades, with well-established art fairs (like Arts Dubai) and galleries (like the Jameel Art Center and XVA gallery). In 2009, meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates became the first Gulf country to have a pavilion at Venice Biennial, one of the world’s most famous art exhibitions.

“What I like about this place is the diversity, and seeing people from different communities, ethnicities and religions being able to practice and live on their own terms, but in respect of everybody else,” says eL Seed of Dubai. His public works can be spotted throughout the city; what he considers his most iconic piece, Declaration, is a bright pink sculpture outside the Dubai Opera ripe for public engagement. “People can interact with it, climb on it and walk through it,” says the artist. “There’s even a bird’s nest inside the sculpture.” Such interactivity is key to eL Seed’s process; an open-door policy at his Dubai studio means anyone can come watch him work.

Born 40 years ago in France to Tunisian parents, eL Seed—a pseudonym referencing the 17th century French tragicomedy Le Cid, itself based on an Arabic word, sayyid, meaning master—painted his first wall in a Parisian suburb as a teenager in 1998. “A woman saw me from a balcony and was screaming like crazy saying, ‘I’m gonna call your mum right now!’ I was looking at her like, What’s wrong?” he says. “The wall is gray, I bought the paint, I painted an art piece on the wall, I’m making the neighborhood more beautiful.”

His professional art career didn’t begin until a decade later when, while working as a business consultant in Montreal, he painted his first piece of Arabic calligraphy as public art. “I felt something was missing from my life. I was dying inside, and I just wanted to paint,” he says. “I had this impression that something had been in me for years and it was just waiting for me to express- it,” he says. Two years later—on the day before his daughter, now 11, was born—eL Seed quit his day job to dedicate himself to art full time.

Beginning in 2013, eL Seed took up a one-year residency at Dubai’s Tashkeel contemporary art and design center at the invitation of founder and director Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s ruling family. It was apparent he would “make work with an impact,” says Sheikha Lateefa.

Key to eL Seed’s approach, says Sheikha Lateefa, is his thoughtfulness regarding the communities in which he’s working. “He is the inventor of the idea, but then uses communities to actually think through what he is making and how it is produced.” Indeed, eL Seed says he understands, when making large-scale public art projects, it’s essential to get into the mindset that you’re working for those who live there, rather than creating whatever you’d like. “You give this feeling of ownership to people, and that’s what I love,” he says.

TIME’s Destination Dubai series is presented by DUBAI

This appears in the April 11, 2022 issue of TIME.

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