The destination of all of Cairo’s trash is widely known internationally as “Garbage City.” But over the past few weeks, the neighborhood of Manshiyat Naser has been witnessing an unexpected and vivid creation spread across its landscape, towering over the dirty discards that line its streets. It is the most recent work of eL Seed, the French-Tunisian artist known for embellishing buildings around the world with his large-scale murals that fuse calligraphy and graffiti. Titled “Perception,” the circular, anamorphic piece of blue, orange, and white covers 50 buildings, and you can read it properly only if you’re standing on the nearby Mokattam Mountain. From a certain vantage point, the fragments form a quote by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic bishop who lived during the third century: “إن أراد أحد أن يبصر نور الشمس، فإن عليه أن يمسح عينيه” — or, “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”
As his work’s title suggests, eL Seed is hoping the colorful creation will encourage people to begin seeing Manshiyat Naser in a different light. For decades, the predominantly Coptic Orthodox community residing in the small settlement has collected, sorted, and recycled the waste of Egypt’s capital, earning a reputation as simply filthy and squalid.
“In my new project ‘Perception’ I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences,” eL Seed wrote on his website. “They have been given the name of Zabaleen (the garbage people), but this is not how they call themselves. They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the ones who clean the city of Cairo.”
eL Seed worked with locals to realize the project, which was a year in the making. “Perception” now represents the largest work of public art the neighborhood has ever seen. Somewhat surprisingly, it was also accomplished without disturbance from the Egyptian government, which is known for cracking down on artistic endeavors especially after the 2011 uprising. Officials have reacted in particular to graffiti as a common form of protest: in 2014, state news labelled artists who launched a street art campaign terrorists; just last month, Egyptian customs officials confiscated hundreds of issues of a publication chronicling street art of the nation’s resolution. eL Seed’s project, however, emerged in a largely neglected suburb and is not critical of the government, standing instead as a tribute to citizens perceived as below others due to their way of living. On his Facebook page, he attributed the success of the project to his decision to keep his plans confidential but also to his position as an outsider.
“Sometimes when you come from outside, you don’t see all the problems that might happen,” he told the New York Times. “I was trying not to look at the political situation, the economic struggles, and just focus on the art project.”
According to the Times, the only complaints the work has received so far are from residents who hoped eL Seed had covered more buildings with his labyrinthine designs.