Lara Baladi: Combined Iconographies in Collage and Installation

Lara Baladi, Tomb of Time Detail.
ACT at MIT

Excerpts from an interview with ACT Lecturer Lara Baladi from Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring: Conversations with Artists from the Arab World, by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.

Baladi’s work, Qabr Al-Zaman (The Tomb of Time), 2010, is currently part of the Subcontracted Nations exhibition. It is a monument, a shrine honoring Life and Death. It is the culmination architectural piece Lara Baladi built as part of a larger series of works entitled Diary of the Future (2007-2010).

“The use of different iconographies combined in my collages or in my installations, gives the work a level of complexity that is found in language in general and in myths in particular. One must know the alphabet to read the text. One must recognize the archetype to transcend the narrative in the myth.” – Lara Baladi

In 2007, Baladi documented the period that preceded her father’s death using the tradition of reading the future in Turkish coffee. This documentation – photographs of rivulets formed inside cups of coffee, printed on porcelain medallions and embedded in grey raw marble, trompe l’oeil paintings, a photomontage printed on a gesso-coated aluminum panel – adorns the walls of Qabr Al-Zaman.

Inspired by the cross-cultural custom of placing exvotos suscepto (“from the vow made”) in chapels in gratitude for the fulfillment of a promise, here, Baladi’s ex-votos are the porcelain medallions, the ever-changing states of mind and shifting portraits of the people surrounding her father until his death, unfolding in chronological order on the walls. Upon entering the shrine, viewers find themselves in a contemplative state where time starts in the past and ends in an imagined future.

Sam Bardaouil, Till Fellrath: It is evident that Qabr Al-Zaman has a strong personal resonance in regards to your experience of loss. Yet, you have managed to create a physical space where the visitor can literally walk into your personal story and contemplate their own experience of loss. Would you say that this convergence between spaces or sharing of territories, yours and the other’s is a recurrent concern of yours? Your work Borg el-Amal (The Tower of Hope) 2008- 2009 comes to mind.

Lara Baladi: Everything about Qabr Al-Zaman is personal, yet nothing intimate is revealed. As the title indicates, it is a “Tomb of Time.” The work transcends the subject it originates from. It becomes an intermediary space between life and death, between the ephemeral and the eternal.

While most of my works stem from personal experiences, they deal with larger socio-political subjects. Borg el-Amal was a two-story tower with no roof. The visitor entered and was immediately engulfed physically in the tower and simultaneously emotionally driven by the music, a Donkey symphony specially composed for the project, a sort of requiem for the poor, a requiem for the human condition in general, for the beauty found in pain.

These liminal spaces, spaces of transition I create, mirror familiar inner spaces, these thresholds of waiting and not knowing our “next”, spaces we all inevitably experience in life. Even the works I produce that are two dimensional, collages and tapestries for instance, work in this way. By carefully selecting iconographies and combining visual elements that reference traditional and contemporary myths, I play with archetypes, which by definition are cross-cultural and cross-temporal.

Bardaouil + Fellrath: You began as a photographer, but gradually veered toward installation art. Can you tell us about that evolution? What inspired you to try something different?

Baladi: I started photography in New York during the summer of 1988. To make a long story short, a group of teenagers broke into my friend’s house to party. One of them forgot a camera. The owner of the house, my friend’s mother, was a photographer. She taught me how to use the camera and took us to see an exhibition by Robert Mapplethorpe. It was the first time I was exposed to what I found out was called “fine art photography”. After seeing this exhibition, I was hooked. I had been baptized into the world of photography. Photography drew me in because it enabled me to find an intimate space. It was a way to go inwards while connecting with the world. In 1996, I worked as a photographer on Youssef Chahine’s film El Masir (‘Destiny’). Working on the set was like going to school. The most important thing I learnt was that when you want to achieve something, you must simply go ahead and do it – past any obstacle. I admired Chahine’s determination and commitment to making his film no matter how long, tedious and difficult the process was. He feared nothing. Most of all, I admired the extraordinary energy this man deployed on the set every day, in spite of his already advanced age. His self-confidence, the confidence he had in his ideas and the passion with which he worked, marked me. Chahine’s leadership was unique. The fictional aspect of his work was also key for me. It showed me the multitude of possibilities that exist beyond photojournalism, beyond the mere representation of reality. Ultimately, I learned that there is no limit to imagination, vision or ambition.

When this experience ended, I was ready to push further my own passion for making images. My work evolved from black and white to color, from documentary photography to creating fictional narratives. Working with Chahine even transformed the way I photographed. I started to find my own voice. The first body of work I made after this experience was The Eye of Mary Magdalena (1998). This work anchored me in Cairo where I had returned one year previously. The work was about my relationship to Egypt and my genealogy, about obvious dualities I found in Egyptian society, which reflected my own inner conflicts; Muslims and Christians, private and public, virgin and prostitute, sacred and profane. But my work started to suffer from the lack of professional photo-labs available in Egypt. So the next step was to find strategies to bypass these technical limitations and continue to create with the tools that were available. My photographic collages, while going beyond the limitations of the photographic frame, emerged within that context. The fictional aspect of my photography reached a new dimension, where costumed characters evolved across the collages as if the fiction (a cinematographic film) had collapsed into one single picture.

I challenged myself with volume and conceived my first installation, Al Fanous El Sehry (‘The Magic Lantern’, 2002). The twenty-nine-meter in circumference eight-pointed Islamic star, which in Sufism represents the “Breath of the Compassionate”, hangs above people’s eyes. Like its inspiration, the chandelier in the Mohamed Ali mosque in Cairo, it fills the space and lights it. The lantern invites viewers to circle around it. The circle is a symbol of Time, a continuous succession of similar yet different moments. As the pilgrims in Mecca walk around the Kaaba, the viewer of the Fanous El Sehry follows, anti-clockwise, the life cycle of a fake Barbie doll in negative images (medical x-rays). The doll is pregnant and gives birth to a baby that becomes a woman, again and again, each time a different persona, one time dancer, one time soldier on autopilot following society’s rules, another time celebrity… This closed circuit is another take on the visual representation of the evolution of Man as depicted in most schoolbooks. It stands as a metaphor for the cycle of History: war-peace-war-peace-war, ad infinitum.

Al Fanous El Sehry was partly a response to the second Intifada. Al Fanous El Sehry was triggered by a situation I found myself in a few years earlier while photographing downtown Cairo. The sleazy director of Theatre Miami in Talaat Harb street accused me of using an “x-ray camera” to take nude pictures through the clothes – as if such a thing was possible – of the actors and actresses in the theatre backstage. I spent the rest of the night at the police station. Although this was the first of many encounters with Egyptian police and the mentality of Egyptian men, little did I know that this unpleasant incident would change my life. I became an installation artist!

Bardaouil + Fellrath: No matter what media you work with, you always produce work that is multilayered and complex.

Baladi: It is complex and multilayered, yes, but always accessible. It is important for me that above all my audience here in Egypt – which includes people without formal art backgrounds, without the knowledge of the sophisticated and often convoluted and jargonistic language of contemporary art – can understand my work, as much, if not more directly, than the art professionals themselves.

The use of different iconographies combined in my collages or in my installations, gives the work a level of complexity that is found in language in general and in myths in particular. One must know the alphabet to read the text. One must recognize the archetype to transcend the narrative in the myth. But then again and because of the nature of the language, the work always remains open to interpretation. Most people, young, old, from various social backgrounds can thus find or create meaning for themselves by projecting their own history onto my work.

The full interview can be found here.

For more images of Qabr Al-Zaman (The Tomb of Time), and another interview with Baladi, please click here.