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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Baladi reflects on international, multimedia art career

Published: November 14, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Lara Baladi, a highly acclaimed Egyptian-Lebanese photographer and multimedia artist, recently presented “Organised Chaos,” which beautifully summarized a retrospective autobiography of her career, her most prized works, her inspirations and her message. The Brandeis Art Council hosted Baladi, who gave a talk presented by the Department of Fine Arts, the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and the Rose Art Museum.

Contact with a myriad of international experiences and iconography of cultures inspired Baladi, a Cairo-based artist. She works with a broad array of media, from tapestries and traditional modes of expression to sounds and perfumes that enhance her message. These diverse modes of expression fuel the imaginations of her viewers and articulate her own history in a generalized way that can relate to all.

“Lara Baladi is one of the most traveled artists we’ve ever hosted,” raved Gannit Ankori (FA), who introduced the presentation. Baladi’s art, however, draws inspiration not only from her travels, but also from her close connections to family. She shed light on two recent events that caught her attention: the passing of her grandmother, a vibrant woman whose energy was a subject of many of Baladi’s pieces, and a new law signed in Egypt that criminalizes foreign funding such as that of NGOs. The law infringes on citizens’ rights to free media and journalism, and has fragmented the cultural scene of Cairo. Similar circumstances are often the focal point of Baladi’s work.

In the midst of conflict and chaos, Baladi began by taking a retroactive look at how Arabs view themselves and their history. She explained that her photography created a foundation for her work, but in no means labels herself as a photographer. Nonetheless, her career began with a focus on the history of the Western orientalist view of the Middle East, and her goal was to redefine this view. In her piece titled “The Mother of the World,” she looks at the orientalist image and turns it on its head, leaving viewers with a sense of strong iconography that contrasts the natural perception of the desert and of the origins of humanity. Beginning with classic images from postcards, she journeys into uncharted territory, pulling in new images that are antithetical to conventional portrayals of the Middle East.

She also called attention to her piece “El Fanous El Sehry,” showing a short video of the production process. This piece, consisting of colorful “dark room” depictions of an x-rayed doll giving birth, were representative of her passion for Japanese manga culture. Inspired by a nephew’s love for Pikachu, she quickly realized that manga culture was present throughout her childhood without her knowledge, having spent decades watching colorful manga cartoons and seeing its imagery everywhere. “I was being fed a culture that I knew nothing about”, said Baladi.

With help from her grandmother’s doctor, she was able to draw upon x-rayed images, a material she wouldn’t have had access to anywhere but in Cairo. “Cairo, because of its nature of being completely diverse and abnormal, with no set cultural normatives, allowed me to be able to produce something that should have cost me a fortune to produce.” Japanese manga, a culture that was unknown to her but has embedded itself in every aspect of Japanese culture, became the focal point for “El Fanous El Sehry” and has direct ties to the inspiring work of manga artist Go Nagai, author of Grendizer. She recounts that returning from Japan, she found Cairo to be outdated, comparing her travels to regressing from the “26th century to the 15th.”

Baladi then turned directions to her modern kaleidoscope, called “Roba Vecchia,” named after the modern Italian community residing in Egypt. Her piece transforms the old stories that connect closely with the unique perspectives and collective histories of each individual viewing her “Roba Vecchia.” Her kaleidoscope is comprised of not just shapes and stars like a normal kaleidoscope, but also of modern images and figures. The images are constantly changing and bending, illuminating the fact that each person’s perception of art is destined to be unique, although the collective experience will be similar. Baladi described the work as immersive, allowing people to be directly involved with the art. She was inspired by the notion of writing history from the leftovers, claiming that recorded history is colloquially the “tip of the iceberg” and that the leftovers of history, namely the trash that gets lost as time progresses, is the best way to document history.

Finally, Baladi stressed the pieces that are tributes to her father, whose cancer slowly absorbed his life and taught her the importance of art in her life. She found that when tragedy hits, art anchors her and makes sense of a world that doesn’t make sense. Baladi collected photographs of the coffee cups of her father and her father’s visitors, paralleling the act of reading the remnants of coffee cups that is traditional in her culture.

Although her art is closely connected to personal issues, her tributes to her father have become works that tie her loss to the losses of her viewers, allowing her viewers to read the diary of her father’s future and read her loss in his coffee cups. Her works such as “Chronologie,” “Relative Destiny” and “Qabr El Zaman” (The Tomb of Time), among others, chronicle her loss in a way that resonates with viewers. These pieces highlight her lucid storytelling, subjectivity and the fluidity of narrative language, and work to unroot history and allow it to transcend time.

Baladi then discussed the difficulty of creating art under a dictatorship, photographing and involving the revolutions of Tahrir Square into her art. She was inspired by the innovation of photography that allowed protesters to photograph and document what was around them. She found that Tahrir was an incredibly sad, messy and angry place without a way to channel these conditions into something positive. Baladi thought, “We need something. We need a screen.” Baladi improvised a media activist program which screened various political images of the time and recorded accounts of individuals being oppressed. These images proved incredibly powerful, as they documented tales which the Egyptian people had been sheltered from. Tahrir became a place for sharing, participating and discussing.

Throughout her career, Baladi has emphasized the act of archiving as an act of resistance. She believes that in the current digital age, the power is in the hands of those who can document history. Baladi is currently working on a project at MIT called “Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age,” a transmedia project that connects various images and accounts into a timeline, a conglomeration of all the narratives of various civilian reporters into one. She has been working on this piece for three years and expects the project to continue into the next two years. This riveting talk was one of several Artist Talks that the Brandeis Art Council will host throughout the year.