Lara Baladi: Rituals of Hope
Born in Lebanon, of Lebanese and Egyptian origins, Lara Baladi has lived in Beirut, Paris, London and Cairo, where she has resided since 1997. Her work interweaves deep personal experiences with a questioning of the social conditions and circumstances of the worlds around her.
This interview focuses mainly on 3 recent bodies of works in which the correlations between the private and the social are conveyed in a particularly impressive way. Although it was planned long before, our communication with Lara Baladi via email and Skype took place during the wave of protests in Egypt that led to the overthrown of the government of Hosni Mubarak, after 30 years of dictatorial regime. In the light of these incidents, a context level already present in her artistic practice gained a new and powerful significance.
Haupt & Binder: When we met last time in Doha in December, you were presenting your latest installation Qabr Al Zaman (The Tomb of Time) as part of one of the opening exhibitions of Mathaf. In Qabr Al Zaman you continue developing a very personal subject matter that has been at the core of your work for several years. Could you explain the background of the piece?
Lara Baladi: Qabr El Zaman is a monumental stone shrine – the culmination of an ensemble of photographic works and large-scale digital montages entitled Diary of the Future. In 2007, after an absence of 50 years, my parents returned to Egypt. My father, afflicted by lung cancer, had come to die where he was born. By August 2007, it became clear that he could pass away any time. The collective experience of my family and all the people accompanying him as he died became my focus.
The traditional practice of reading the future in Turkish coffee cups, a practice that exists throughout the Arab world and across social classes, assumed a great significance as a way to record this period. I asked every person who visited my father to drink coffee and unwittingly become part of an elaborate ceremony. Everyone followed my instructions and religiously drank, turned the cup upside down, turned it seven times in the saucer and tapped it three times. The prophetic words began to articulate and make sense of the situation. Spreading beyond the confines of the "huis clos" we were living in, the coffee dregs contained a popular and subjective language that transcended our personal experience. I photographed the interior of those cups and archived each one of them based on name and date. It is this exact inventory that graces the walls of Qabr El Zaman. While Diary of the Future is a chronicle of lives running parallel yet crossing each other, a record of life's continuity in the face of death, Qabr El Zaman is the closure/burial and the edification of this charted period of intimacy with family, friends, doctors, and nurses, a period of great emotional difficulty that we all experienced yet shared, a shrine to the memory of my father.
H. & B.: In this work, we can see iconographic elements that relate to different cultures and religions. How do you read this in the current situation?
L.B.: One of the main effects of the police force's use of violence against the demonstrators and the attempt by opposing political parties to manipulate the revolution in their favour was the fall of deeply embedded social barriers. Essentially, we witnessed the emphasis on being Egyptian rather than Muslim or Christian, of being a citizen rather then being a woman or a man. The solidarity of people on Tahrir Square was growing by day. A Muslim sheikh holding a Quran and a priest holding a cross marching together, wall graffiti depicting a cross and a crescent and stating "we are all Egyptians" became very representative images of the spirit of the revolution. The violence against the population and also the early January attacks on the church in Alexandria, instead of dividing people, united them against the oppressive power of the Mubarak regime.
I have always lived in a multi-cultural environment and always believed in blurring boundaries rather than exacerbating differences. Qabr El Zaman resonates with the current events in the sense that its architecture, the "trompe l'oeil" on the walls and the visual references in its central digital montage piece all borrow iconography and references from popular, multi-cultural and multi-religious sources, from stencils that were used to decorate the dresses of the Virgin Mary's statues for Spanish churches, Islamic shrines architectural patterns, medieval iconography, shapes found in nature, to popular angels' representations.
H. & B.: Parallel to this body of work, you also created Borg El Amal, the site-specific "Tower of Hope" presented at the Cairo Biennale in 2009, for which you were awarded the Cairo Biennale's Nile Grand Prize. You once said about it that it "draws from the same personal experience as Qabr El Zaman but shares it on a very social and urban level." How are these levels intertwined?
L.B.: Borg El Amal and Qabr El Zaman were in big part born from the very personal and solitary experience of accompanying my father's dying. However, unlike Qabr El Zaman, in Borg El Amal this aspect is "invisible".
Borg El Amal was created in several stages and over a period of three years. First, there was the idea of the donkey symphony. A year later, in 2007, the composer Nathaniel Robin Mann and I recorded brays in Spain, outside Madrid, in a place called Burrolandia (the land of donkeys). A few months later, I started photographing the coffee cups until my father passed away in January 2008.
In April 2008, the Cairo Biennale curator invited me to take part in the December/January 2008/9 edition, "The Others". The Biennale's main exhibition venue, the Palace of Arts, is a building on the Opera House grounds – a military base in the centre of Cairo on Gezira Island. It was obvious to me that I had to produce a site-specific work that reflected on who the "Others" were in relationship to the government.
Borg El Amal was built using the same construction methods as in the "ashwa'iyat" (informal housing in Arabic) commonly called the Red City. These "ashwa'iyat" comprise more than forty percent of Cairo and are completely ignored by the state. The tower contained the donkey symphony. The symphony resonated with the agonising cry of the Red City – the ambivalent sound of ecstasy and/or despair – and with the beauty in the sadness that I found when watching my father die, a sort of requiem, a hymn to the beauty that lies in horror, a hymn to hope in the midst of misery.
H. & B.: In one of your emails you wrote to us that Borg El Amal was a very significant work for you, but also for the people involved and for the Cairo art scene. What did this work mean to you, and how did you notice its significance for others?
L.B.: The audience at the Biennale was very diverse and its reaction overwhelming. The various events taking place in the Opera House grounds, concerts, festivals, plays etc. – from the time I started to build to when I destroyed the tower – drew all kinds of people to experience Borg el Amal. While it was under construction, some were horrified. I even had to "hide" the construction site so that Suzanne Mubarak would not see it when inaugurating the film festival! But slowly, everyone, especially the workers who helped me and who live in these "ashwa'iyat", started to recognize that what was being built was a tribute to these informal housing areas and their population and even began to have a new outlook on their own lives.
Of course for me it was a significant work and today it is even more so, considering the current situation. Borg El Amal took my work to a new level. The tower contained all my previous works, the architecture was designed from a collage of photographs I took of the Red City, the bricks looked like a woven tapestry, the sound of the symphony could have been the sound of the mermaids tempting Ulysses… Borg el Amal rooted me more deeply than ever in Egypt. Symbolically, I refused to remove the cement foundations after destroying the tower when the Biennale ended.
As for the art scene, one reaction that sums it all up was an artist thanking me for showing how much could be said while breaking the boundaries of censorship. Now these boundaries have exploded with one of the major changes the revolution brought, a new page turned in history, "the breaking of the fear", the fear of speaking one's mind and the fear of being punished. The creativity of the slogans, the actions and the humour that we witnessed in Tahrir is only the beginning of the unleashing of an immense and long-oppressed creative energy.
H. & B.: In the book Hope that you produced for the exhibition Afropolis currently on view in Cologne, Germany, with photos of those illegally built "informal housing" quarters in and around Cairo, you write that: "It seems to me that these 'ashwa'iyat' represent a false promise… a vain hope for a better tomorrow." In view of the current developments, do you see more hope now?
L.B.: The booklet produced for the exhibition Afropolis in cooperation with Tang Museum at Skidmore University in the US is a direct outcome of Borg El Amal. The photographs taken to study architectural details and to design the tower grew into a larger body of work, which is in part published in the booklet Hope.
There is always hope. And there always was hope. The proof is the revolution. The regime was so oblivious to the needs of the population that, whether they liked it or not, people ended up building states within the state. The population in the "ashwa'iyat" in particular and in Egypt in general has developed survival methods and structures operating completely separately from the regime. But solidarity and communal life are also an intrinsic part of Egyptian social behaviour, a phenomenon we witnessed conspicuously in the last weeks.
However, the population from the "ashwa'iyat" was not at the forefront of this revolution, although it clearly took part in it (we see this in the police stations that were burnt in some of these areas on the Angry Friday). Thirty per cent of the population still does not hold an identity card and, most probably, people from the "ashwa'iyat" represent a large part of these thirty per cent. To enter Tahrir we needed to show our Egyptian ID.
The big economic slump we are now experiencing affects primarily the poorer sections of society. If a new system, a new kind of democracy, not one cut and pasted from the existing failing Western democracies, can really be implemented, then hopefully the "ashwa'iyat" will also benefit from this revolution. However, as we saw, hope is in the people. The people's "plan" is to clean Egypt from its corrupt regime and literally every area of the city will be cleaned one after another by volunteering citizens, just like Tahrir Square was cleaned and repainted after the departure of Mubarak. There is hope for every soul.