Lara Baladi, from tapestry to archival art
Washington - As part of its Perspectives contemporary art series showcasing large-scale works, the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington recently opened an exhibit called Oum el Dounia, a large-scale, photo-composed tapestry by Egyptian- Lebanese photographer and multimedia artist Lara Baladi.
The entrance to Oum el Dounia — The Mother of the World — and the artwork itself is strange. Passing through the dim surface-level pavilion, the space resolves towards Baladi’s bright yellow and blue tapestry on the far wall. At 9 metres long by 3 metres high, this fantastical montage, composed mostly of her own photographs and a vintage postcards of Egypt, offers lovelorn mermaids, hackneyed images of Egypt and other characters designed to confront cultural stereotypes.
Visitors peer curiously across this mysterious composition, scanning images and symbolic elements based on myths and archetypical characters. “In thinking about how to represent my experience in the desert,” Baladi said. “I looked to fairy tales such as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’, postcards and my own archive. The resulting collage… turn[s] the stereotypical image of the Western Orientalism upside down.”
Shapes float like negatives of her trade. Puzzle pieces — fitting, yet not — raising questions. Quizzically provocative, the textile prompts stepping back, then refocusing to parse meaning as viewers guess about the fairy tale characters — so improbably appearing in the landscape.
The lower half is immersed in warm golden sand and features an unusual mushroom formation — an Egyptian natural wonder. Above, vibrant blue cools with images of the sea and perhaps Baladi’s face, looking towards open hands. A sphinx presides and mermaids bridge the colour line. A miniature Dejeuner Sur le Desert appears.
Like a dream in which disparate memories are conflated into a story that may or may not be interpretable. Baladi employs Western and Egyptian cultural icons as metaphor. Smirking in a sort of canny cultural diplomacy, her whimsy integrates Disney characters in a fantasy fusion; she questions memes and delights in crossing bridges.
The picnic evokes the tea party showing “innocent” Alice in a white dress. The caterpillar is “the philosopher, wandering about both time and space”, Baladi told Carol Huh, assistant curator of contemporary Asian art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. “Those are concepts embodied by the desert.”
The gallery selected Baladi’s multidisciplinary work for “its question[ing] and experiment[ing] with the photographic medium and its history and role in shaping perceptions and narratives of the Middle East”.
Apart from its design merits, the tapestry is a good example of a digital design rendered line by line in wool and cotton by an electronic loom. The auto-loom concept emerged in the early 19th century when weavers used punch cards to produce intricate Jacquard fabrics.
Unfortunately, because of paltry signage the gallery misses an opportunity to provide a deeper narrative of Baladi’s oeuvre. Some viewers leave perplexed and unaware of her significance as an artist-documentarian. From today’s media-laden vantage point, her tapestry hangs as a static exhibit. It would have been ideal to provide seating, allowing visitors to reflect and watch a video of Baladi explaining her inspiration and bringing her important work up to date.
Drawing across sources to create provocative art and commentary, she explores how information and stories are told and conveyed, interpreted and internalised. She again used Alice’s dialogue with the caterpillar in a 2013 video honouring the anniversary of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising.
The caterpillar exasperates Alice by repeating the question “Whooo are you?” Alice replies “I can’t explain myself, because I’m not myself… It is not clear to me.” A historical figure urges: “Find out who you are… You are the story of mankind.”
With her passionate artist’s calling to preserve and publicise collections of documentary materials, Baladi is recognised as a pioneer artist-archivist. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) awarded her a prestigious two-year teaching fellowship as part of its interdisciplinary focus and mounted her exhibition Vox Populi, Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age, a series of new media works on Tahrir Square created with MIT’s OpenDocLab. These events are the most digitally documented and disseminated in history. MIT recently opened Baladi’s new interactive exhibit about the Occupy movement in the United States.
Sarah Wolozin, director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, told The Arab Weekly: “We’re all inundated with information… and it’s really interesting to see [Baladi’s] work at the forefront, exploring ways to navigate this information which is interesting in itself. She’s an incredibly innovative and cutting-edge thinker and her project is so important.”
Baladi’s Tahrir Square project was “an event-based piece and she put all kinds of documents on the wall so people could interact… [Her installation] recreated an experience of those 18 days in Egypt. Coming from a very important region of the world… she has a lot of fascinating ideas around art making and collaborative work with archives in particular,” Wolozin said.
From woven dreamscape to bringing story telling alive through curated collections of audio, visual and texted material, Baladi will continue to intrigue and educate, bearing witness to important social/political movements through her multimedia art.
The Perspectives: Lara Baladi exhibit is to run through June 5, 2016, at the Sackler.