W.E.B. Du Bois’ Words, Rendered in Arabic Calligraphy, on a West Philly Corner
A blank wall as his canvas, Tunisian-French street artist eL Seed spent a week this autumn transforming the corner of Market and Preston streets just north of 40th Street. The result: rhythmic black lines dancing against an abstract background of magenta, pink, yellow, and blue in a script eL Seed calls “calligraffiti,” messages in Arabic written in a calligraphic graffiti-like style.
The mural artist was invited to Philadelphia in mid-November by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and Mural Arts Philadelphia as part of a project called (DIS)PLACED: Philadelphia. This was supported in part by Penn’s Global Engagement Fund (GEF) through the involvement of Huda Fakhreddine, assistant professor of Arabic literature in the School of Arts and Sciences.
Fakhreddine applied for the GEF grant though Penn Global to support a book project exploring the prose poem in Arab, a poetic form that is at the center of debate. She also sought funding for her collaborative engagement with Al-Bustan, a local not-for-profit dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language in the region. Her involvement with the organization led to the (DIS)PLACED: Philadelphia initiative.
The project, says Fakhreddine, “considers the theme of displacement across Philadelphia’s diverse communities and from the perspectives of four artists-in-residence of Arab heritage. With a global refugee crisis particularly acute in the Arab region, we chose the theme of displacement, a term deliberately polyvalent for this project so as to allow the artists space for open exploration and deeper examination of the meaning as it relates to their own work, other guest artists, and their residency in Philadelphia.”
In addition to eL Seed, the artists participating in the program have included Nazem El-Sayed, Lebanese poet based in D.C.; Buthayna Ali, a Syrian visual artist based in Damascus; and Kinan Abu Afach, a Syrian composer and musician based in Philadelphia. Together Fakhreddine and Al-Bustan have worked with Penn students and the West Philadelphia community to expand cross-cultural opportunities and engagement with the visiting Arabic artists.
Fakhreddine says, “The artists have been approaching the theme from multiple angles, for example, the effect of socio-political realities, which have physically displaced some of the artists; their current placement in other countries and the surrounding socio, political, and cultural contexts; and the place of their works and artistic processes in the broader art world.”
“When Professor Fakhreddine and Al-Bustan’s Hazami Sayed approached Penn Global about supporting this project, we were excited about the opportunity to connect this project more directly to the Penn community, students and faculty,” says Amy Gadsden, Penn Global’s Executive Director. “It particularly resonated with the work that Perry World House has been doing on migration and demography as part of its focus on “Global Shifts.”
Activities on Penn’s campus have included guest lectures last spring and an arts workshop in June of 2017, and on Nov. 11, eL Seed took part in a public presentation at the Perry World House discussing his work in conversation with Conrad Benner, founder and editor of StreetsDept.com, a photo-blog that documents art on the streets of Philadelphia.
EL Seed spent the week meeting with community members who refer to the neighborhood as the Black Bottom, and was inspired by lifelong resident Kernard Shearlds to write “Soul of the Black Bottom” in Arabic on the wall. He also chose a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1920 book “Darkwater: Voices From the Veil,” for the mural: “I believe that all men, black and brown, and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and the possibility of infinite development.” Du Bois conducted research for his seminal sociological study “The Philadelphia Negro” while an assistant instructor at Penn.
“Many students, especially grad students, live nearby and this mural will be part of their neighborhood,” says Fakhreddine. “We hope that the upkeep of the area around it is something the Penn community may contribute to in the future. In the meantime, they can enjoy the mural alongside their neighbors.”
Sophomore Anisa Hasan-Granier from Washington, D.C., got a first-hand view of the project. She has been interning with Al-Bustan since last May and blogged about the conversation between eL Seed and Benner and the mural project for Al-Bustan.
“I think one of the most important things Al-Bustan does is engage in Arab culture in Philadelphia and promote engagement. Community building through art is a major part of that,” Hasan-Granier says. “For the mural, eL Seed worked with members of the West Powelton community. They understand the history of the area and were welcoming of the attempt to bridge cultures through the mural. They saw it as a way to honor the different communities who have met and come together over the years.”
As programming co-chair for the United Minorities Council at Penn, the undergraduate student coalition of Caribbean/African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino, and Native American student organizations, she believes building understanding across cultures is critical.
“I am half-Pakistani and half-French,” says Hasan-Granier, “so I understand the importance of intercultural exchange and social justice, and I really related to eL Seed’s empathy and recognition of other’s stories in his process.”
Ezekiel Emanuel, Penn’s vice provost for global initiatives, says the project was a natural fit expanding on the University’s goals for global, national, and local engagement outlined in the Penn Compact 2020.
“Our goal in supporting this project,” says Emanuel, “was to link the global and the local and create opportunities for Penn students to explore themes of displacement and relocation in the Arab world through art, music, and poetry from campus.”
“EL Seed’s work goes one step further,” he adds. “By incorporating W.E.B. Du Bois’ words about race, identity, and belonging into his mural, he demonstrates how artistic expression offers a pathway to transcend cultures, languages, and borders.”
Photo: Tunisian-French street artist eL Seed speaks at a public presentation at the Perry World House discussing his work in conversation with Conrad Benner, founder and editor of StreetsDept.com.