September 4, 2012

Arab Spring, Awakening

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The Arab Spring, which erupted in the Middle East in 2010, was an exciting development in a region long known for its dictators. On Aug. 27, the Department of Art offered Cornell students a rare chance to hear from the Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi. Baladi is a cosmopolitan artist who was born in Beirut, raised in Cairo and Paris, and educated in London. She has lived and worked in Egypt since 1997 and has emerged as a leading artist from the Middle East.

Baladi presented one of her ambitious projects, the Borg El Amal (Tower of Hope), a large unfinished and makeshift cement and red brick structure similar to the informal houses commonly occupied by the poor commonly in Egypt. The artist had special bricks made with the words “hope” in English and Arabic embossed along with an image of a man with a donkey. Surprisingly, the artist received permission to construct this tower in one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Cairo, on the grounds of the Palace of Arts Opera House. The work highlighted the sharp wealth disparities in Egypt, and suggested that poverty and despair was the main reason for the uprising in Egypt in 2011. This project was especially poignant for me, as I spent my early years in Karachi, Pakistan. Karachi, like Cairo, is a city constantly under pressure from sprawling slums, corruption and joblessness.

Baladi also discussed a work she produced as she dealt with her father’s death. She used images of coffee grounds at the bottom of cups of Turkish coffee that family and friends would drink while visiting her ailing father. The flowing patterns of the coffee grounds became for Baladi a metaphor of the constant flow of life itself. The artist has arranged these small, circular patterns in larger architectural arrangements, inspired by extensive research on religious and funerary motifs drawn from various places in the world. She even created a marble tomb, decorated by these strange coffee patterns, which people could enter.

From early 2011, Baladi became fully occupied with the sudden eruption of the Arab Spring. She acknowledged that the pressures of the revolution have made it more challenging for her to create art. The epicenter of the Arab Spring in Cairo was a big, circular space called Tahrir Square, which became a site for occupation and protest for months. Notably, Baladi became the co-founder and organizer of Tahrir Cinema. Tahrir Cinema showed footage of protests and other images freely, drawn from multiple sources. This allowed many poor people who did not have Internet access to better understand the revolution.

The artist frankly discussed the difficulties of the artistic process when dealing with such a momentous event. In order to better understand the significance of the revolution, Baladi studied early cinema and explored censorship, orientalist and racist cliches alongside other motifs. However, it seemed as if Baladi needed more time to reflect on and explain the meaning of these YouTube clips, which for the Cornell audience often seemed to have been chosen randomly.

Baladi admitted to being disoriented by the dizzying speed at which the revolution had been unfolding — and who wouldn’t be? Her colossal works may be read as a statement that life goes on, despite its complexities, and that we should forge on with hope.

Original Author: Rehan Dadi