ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Lara Baladi as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
This Artist Spotlight is presented in association with ArteEast’s Unpacking the ArteArchive program Monuments & Flowers, curated by Regine Basha, which features Lara Baladi’s film, Don´t Touch Me Tomatoes & Chachacha.
The Monuments & Flowers program will be available for streaming online in both English and Spanish, from April 29 – May 7. RSVP here.
In partnership with Casa Árabe, theatrical screenings were presented at Casa Árabe Cordoba (April 27th, 7pm) and at Casa Árabe Madrid (April 28, 7:30pm). For more info on the in person program go to casaarabe.es
Lara Baladi is an internationally recognized Egyptian-Lebanese, multi-disciplinary artist, archivist, and educator. Her artistic practice spans from photography, video, sculpture to architecture, social engagement and multimedia installations. Informed by critical investigations into historical archives and the study of popular visual culture, Baladi’s work questions the theoretical divide between myth, memory, socio-political narratives and the cycles inherent to History. Baladi’s work has been published, exhibited and featured internationally—from the Centre George Pompidou, Paris, Transmediale, Berlin, the Gwangju Biennial, South Korea, to the Hasselblad Foundation, Sweden.
Baladi has received fellowships from the Japan Foundation and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab – and residencies with Art Omi (Ghent, New York), MacDowell (New Hampshire) and MIT (Ida Ely Rubin Artist in Residence) amongst others. She has been on the board of directors of the Arab Image Foundation (Lebanon) and Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art (Egypt). Since 2011, her media initiative Vox Populi: Tahrir Archives includes a series of artworks, publications and an open source timeline and portal into web-based archives of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and other global social movements. Since 2016, Lara Baladi has been a Lecturer in MIT’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT).
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Lara Baladi: My work questions the divide and interlaced connections between memory, myth, socio-political narratives and the cycles inherent to history. My practice is informed by critical interpretations and investigations into my ongoing archive (photographs, images, objects), into historical archives and the study of popular visual culture. Prior to becoming a multidisciplinary artist, I was a documentary photographer. I soon realized it was through art rather than journalism that I could express myself freely. Collecting was always and continues to be an essential part of my practice. From its inception, I became a member, and later a member of the board of directors of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, Lebanon—one of the first institutions to research and archive photography in and from the Arab world. In 2011, I started an archive, Vox Populi, Tahrir archives (the Voice of the People), related to global protests and revolutions, past and present, from Tahrir Square in Egypt to the Arab Uprisings, the 2014 and 2019 Hong Kong protests, the 2019 protests in Chile, Bolivia, Sudan, and Lebanon, to the most recent Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S.
AE: Can you tell us about your ongoing project Vox Populi? How has this project evolved and maintained relevance since it launched in 2011?
LB: By the end of 2010, the stagnant political situation in Egypt had become suffocating. I had just finished Diary of the Future, a series of works on the death of my father and been accepted for an artist residency in Mexico. I needed a change. In Egypt, there were protests every year on Police Day, January 25th, presumably a day with less police force on the streets. In 2011, for the first time, protesters outnumbered the police. That night, I watched the video of a young Egyptian man who stopped a police water cannon truck the same way a man stopped the Chinese tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in 1989. I time traveled and remembered vividly that footage in the news on TV when I was a child. The headlines read “Tank Man.” In that instant, I felt in my guts that Egypt as I knew it was over. A new era had just begun. On the 28th of January, “The Day of Wrath,” I joined the protests. Just as that YouTube video, Tiananmen-like-Courage-in-Cairo, went viral, a friend posted on Facebook a speech Jean Paul Sartre had delivered to an audience of striking French autoworkers 40 years earlier. Between this sense of history repeating itself, the creative tsunami of videos and images that swamped the internet, and participating in and producing documentation of the events on the ground, an archival project came into being. I collected videos, photos and more data focusing essentially on the popular iconography and emerging visual language of Tahrir. In parallel, I collected footage that resonated with the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings, from historical footage to philosophical speeches, banned cartoons, and more.
Two months into the revolution, in April 2011, I gave a talk at the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute. I showed some of the material I had gathered thus far. Although the audience was full of people familiar with the Arab world, no one seemed to have previously seen the footage I presented. The Google algorithm, geo-location, and our varying interests gave each of us a very different picture of the same event. This was the confirmation that I needed to continue collecting. I also knew I had to do so from my personal perspective, one of a multitude of perspectives from and of Tahrir Square. That evening, I realized the significance of the task I was undertaking.
In 2014, I was the recipient of a research Fellowship at MIT’s OpenDocLab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). By then, Vox Populi, Tahrir Archives, had become of consequence. It was time to give my archive back to the Internet. During my fellowship, I studied new technologies applied to storytelling, and more specifically, I investigated new avenues for interpreting and sharing my archive online. Working with various groups at MIT, including students and faculty, and fellows of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and of the Metalab, I organized Notes from El Saniya, a live event at the GSD (Harvard Graduate School of Design). The theatrical display of the Tahrir Archives that came out of this collaboration—or what I like to refer to as “performing the archive”—coincided with the first day of protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. While the Tahrir Square uprisings were already fading into history, in the U.S., outside the building in which our event was taking place, and across the country, protests had just begun, prompted by the death of Mike Brown. The image which closed Notes from El Saniya was of a Facebook event inviting people to protest on the Day of Wrath, a protest due to take place three days later in New York City. The same trigger, the same protest techniques, the same vocabulary were shared globally, more reasons for me to continue archiving other global social movements, beyond Tahrir Square and the Arab Uprisings.
AE: Can you elaborate on your recent and ongoing body of work, The River of Life, which consists of twenty-eight tapestries?
LB: The River of Life, a title borrowed from the Book of Revelations, is an ambitious project in the making. It is inspired by the renowned medieval Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse (Apocalypse Tapestry) in Angers, France, and consists of a series of twenty-eight tapestries. The first in the series, I AM WITH HER, was born from my collaboration with Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri, founders of Bokja Design in Beirut, Lebanon. It focuses on the meaning of the word “nature” and was conceived for Lost in the Right Direction, an exhibition curated by Art Design Lebanon in the midst of the Deir el-Qalaa ruins (The Fortress Monastery). Once completed, the twenty-eight tapestries will unfold over more than seventy meters. Gazing into a future of hope, the artworks draw on the iconography of past and present protests, revolutions, and the representation of history and mythology. As we near what scientists and conservationists call the “Sixth Mass Extinction,” or “The Apocalypse,” as announced in The New Testament, questions surrounding humanity’s impact on the earth arise, prompting us to re-evaluate our relationship with ourselves, with each other and with the world at large. A reflection on the Anthropocene epoch we live in, The River of Life is a commentary on our present-day condition, which proposes a renewed and more integrated relationship with “her,” Mother Earth.
AE: You work in a variety of mediums, including immersive video, photography, collage, sound, tapestries, perfume and multimedia installations. How do these various mediums convey different themes or intentions within your work?
LB: Even though I pulled away very early from the traditional frame of the photograph, photography has always been, and continues to be, at the core of my artistic practice. When I moved to Egypt in 1997, it was the end of the analogue and of the beginning of the digital era. There were only a few Kodak and Fuji photo labs, which mainly served weddings and amateur photographers. They had replaced the portrait studios of a long-past belle epoque in downtown Cairo. In these labs, enlargement options were seldom, if nonexistent, and the printing quality mediocre. I found ways around these limitations by embracing what was available. In 2000, as a response to a commission by the Fondation Cartier in Paris, I sculpted/collaged a large-scale photographic work using postcard-sized prints.
I am self-taught. At that time, I had only taken a couple of photography courses in college. But from that point onward, my practice expanded beyond photography. It became clear to me that the possibilities were limitless. I began exploring various artistic forms, creating installations, sometimes tapping into what Egypt, and Cairo in particular, had to offer. I collaborated extensively with billboard painters, metal workers and other talented craftsmen. A few years later, working with Factum Arte in Madrid, Spain, gave me access to printing my artworks professionally and experimenting with various techniques— digitally operated looms, pigment prints on gesso-coated aluminum panels and more. My artistic strategies became more elaborate, drawing my focus to the medium, the viewer’s experience and the most appropriate form for manifesting my ideas.
AE: In addition to your art practice, you have been a lecturer at the Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program at MIT since 2015. Can you speak about your experience teaching, both pre-Covid and throughout the pandemic? Has the act of teaching and conversing with students taught you something in turn or influenced any aspects of your practice?
LB: Since teaching my first workshop, in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, in 1999, I have taught in various contexts throughout Africa and in Europe. In 2011, in the midst of the Egyptian uprisings, I ran several workshops related to art and revolution at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery. During the same period, in Tahrir Square, I founded Tahrir Cinema as a platform that engaged protestors on issues relating to the events unfolding on the ground. This last experience was significant; it revealed my readiness and desire to share my knowledge and experience as an artist. Teaching became an objective, so when I was offered a position in MIT’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), I accepted without hesitation. Since 2015, lecturing at the undergraduate and graduate levels at MIT has informed my vision as an educator and as an artist. Not having an academic background, to design my courses, I had to assess and revise my knowledge of the history of media, and more specifically of photography. It was an exciting challenge. After years of practicing and producing artworks relentlessly, in a country like Egypt, where there was and still is little critical art discourse, I was able to indulge in art theory. The intertwined connection between learning and teaching is continuous. It informs my art practice to this day. And of course, there are the students… They are the reason why I am still at MIT. Pure joy. They are smart, open, passionate and fun to be around. They teach me as much as I teach them. Their interests and research feed into my own. They help me become a better person. It is an ongoing, inspiring exchange. How they perceive and engage with the world challenges the approach of my own generation, and this keeps me on my toes as to what matters.
As for the beginning of the pandemic, it was a huge learning curve. In March 2020, once the confinement began, I had two weeks to adapt and prepare for online teaching. Having to support my students during this difficult time helped me stay grounded. I had been through many crises myself: war, revolution, an almost fatal accident, to name a few. The pandemic was just another crisis to face. It was an opportunity to empower my students and myself. I found teaching online frustrating in many ways, but overall, it was a wonderful period when students were able to more freely share their emotions, their fears, their desires and their vision for the future. As a way of coping, I revived The Boston Metropolitan Trail Guide, a project initiated by Pascal Menoret, a friend and Professor from Brandeis University. Pascal, Jesus Ocampo (ACT alumni), and I are now editing the guide, which explores a slow transit infrastructure that affords critical vantage points on the history and sociology of the area. Together with our students, we are still walking and designing twenty-four itineraries across Greater Boston. The WhatsApp group I created then includes today more than sixty participants, walkers and/or contributors to this guide-in-the-making.
AE: Do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
LB: The Boston Metropolitan Trail Guide will be published sometime next year, as will ABC: A Lesson in History, an artist book documenting my artwork of the same name. Anatomy of Revolution, a web-based artwork, will be launched in the fall. At once an artwork and an educational tool, this online platform is an interactive abecedary of revolution, which combines concepts and iconography of global, past and present revolts and protests. This latter project is the result of ten years of research that cumulated from/in Vox Populi, Tahrir Archives.
LARA BALADI ONLINE: