Lara Baladi, from tapestry to archival art

Friday 23/10/2015
Lara Baladi’s Oum el Dounia

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.