Perception, eL Seed’s massive Arabic calligraffiti mural in Cairo, is visible as a whole from only one place: a Coptic church in a cave on Mokottam Mountain. The artwork was intended to open a dialogue about the Zaraeeb, a little-known community of Coptic Christians who are master recyclers.
“Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.” That’s the message of this enormous anamorphic mural, fully legible from only one point on Mokattam Mountain in Cairo. The Arabic calligraffiti, spread over nearly 50 buildings, spells out the words of the third-century Coptic bishop Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. It’s the work of a team led by French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed in the Manshiyat Nasr ward in the city. The neighborhood, at the foot of the mountain, is home to the Zaraeeb, a community of Coptic Christians who serve as the city’s garbage collectors and recyclers.
The Zaraeeb can be doubly “invisible” in a modern majority-Muslim city. Not only are they a religious minority, but they handle the tainted discards of the community. The term that many Cairenes use to refer to members of the community, Zabaleen (“garbage people”), is one vivid indication of their marginalization. The term they use for themselves, Zaraeeb, means “pig breeders.” For decades they’ve been collecting the garbage of the people of Cairo and feeding the organic waste to pigs and other animals. This self-sufficient and profitable recycling system is one of the most efficient in the world: the Zaraeeb recycle up to 85 percent of what they collect.
Executing Perception required assembling a team of artists from France, North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States, a year of planning and logistics organization, and three weeks of intense work on-site. Some local residents worked with the team, and, of course, the owners of the buildings involved had to give their consent.
The spot on Mokattam Mountain where the work “comes together” is a sacred place: a Coptic church in a cave, which can accommodate 20,000 people. In a 2016 TED Talk, the artist noted that his project was “not about beautifying a place by bringing art to it,” but about “switching perception and opening a dialogue” with a little-known community. A key purpose of the piece, eL Seed noted elsewhere, is to question “the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences.”
Read what we wrote about this project in Public Art Review issue 55, learn more about the artist’s inspirational work provoking viewers to question perceptions in PAR issue 52, at the Djerbahood festival, and as part of the United Arab Emirates’ nascent public art scene, in PAR issue 53.