“Ritual is a tender anchor. Through repetition we find comfort in an otherwise uncertain reality. It is this essence of ritual that is explored in Diary of the Future, an ensemble work, which emerged from the time preceding the death of my father.”
Lara Baladi b.1969 in Beirut is an Egyptian-Lebanese artist, educated in Paris and London. The multimedia artist currently lives and works in Cairo, Egypt. Baladi’s creative talents span working with photography, installation, visual montage, tapestries, sculpture and video. Her works often explores the pressured socio-political context of contemporary Egypt; questioning social conditions and circumstances. However in this post #OCCUPYARABART focuses on a more intimate project Diary of the Future.
In 2007 Lara Baladi turned to the tradition of the reading of ones future in the residue of Turkish coffee to record this deeply moving and personal experience of the artist’s life. The traditional practice of reading futures in the left over cups of Turkish coffee is a practice that exists through the Arab world and crosses all social classes. After the cup of coffee is drunk it is upturned and left to settle, the patterns of sticky coffee grains that remain are read by a guest to describe the visitor’s destiny. The reading of shapes in the left over coffee remains a fortune telling practice all over the Middle East, from the salon to the coffee house.
This is a daily, light hearted, familiar and recognisable part of Arab culture; however the artist transformed this process into a powerful vehicle to record a deeply personal experience of family, love, loss, ritual and connection. In August 2007 Lara Baladi’s father was diagnosed with a serious illness and the family were aware that he could pass away at any time. They returned to Cairo after living 50 years in Paris, at this time friends and family began to visit the father and the family to pay their respects as is custom when someone is ill or close to death. The offering of coffee was a natural part of this tradition.
Baladi began to view this collective experience of people visiting to accompany her father in his last few weeks in a distinct and existential way. As is described in Contemporary Practices
“Examining how to transcend loss in the lives of destinies that were destined themselves with longevity of a different kind.”
As an experienced archiver in an attempt to find purpose, focus and comfort within that space Baladi began to ask every visitor to drink the coffee, offering instructions to turn the cup upside down, turn it seven times in saucer tapped it 3 times, as one would when reading the future of the drinker. Baladi photographed the interior of each cup, archived it with the name and date. She collected these images and sounds over course of father’s illness where friends and families visited daily.
What emerged from this delicate and emotional time was an elaborate ceremony that became a chronicle of lives running parallel yet crossing over, recording life in the face of death. The condolence visits paid to the family, were linked for a moment each visitor’s destiny to the father, creating a collective narrative.
What this resulted in was Diary of the Future 2007/08 an installation commissioned for the exhibition. Baladi took her records and made large scaled, ceiling to floor compositions of photograph panels; each panel has images of the read coffee cups. The images are layered and stack in grid-like formation. From afar the viewer is compelled by this ordered and symmetrical visual display. The coffee cups in essence are light hearted; a playful motif, but on closer inspection invite the viewer to gaze deeper. When you approach the work the viewer in drawn in to contemplate and reflect on what is in fact, completely unique personal records, as a fingerprint is mark of your present existence, the granules of coffee in their own delicate and unique formations offer a print of someone’s future.
What the work suggests is that despite efforts to carve unique individual paths and futures we are bound by fleeting existence, place within time, cycle and inevitability. The future is dependent on the present and is redefined every day, perpetually creating different destinies and vividly aware of futures uncertainty.
“Diary of the Future” projects the almost indescribable ache that we feel in the face of mortality. The reading of cups hints at a desire for a glimpse of something eternal, something beyond this existence, our yearning for a concrete future born from the reality of our present. What Baladi shows us is the story of the continuity of life and the living in the face of death. Although this subject cannot escape a sense of sadness and melancholy, the works are in essence a celebration of the continuity of life. Collectively, they are the verification to what the artist refers to as “the movement found within stillness.” The work is hopeful as much as it is heart wrenching.
Baladi’s documentation of the rhythm of the coffee cups and visitors slowing down to none at the point of her father’s passing lasted 6 months resulting in a generous mass of images to work with. After Diary of the Future the project continued to unfold; the rich archive grew into new works, such as Rose, La Mere Noir, and The Eye of Adam. These works expanded on the original project where Baladi now introduced the lace doily motif. The photographs of the cups are arranged symmetrically in a large scale digital montage.
The cups now become the image of an intricate doily. Taking the small material that the coffee would be served on Baladi blew these up to huge proportions; the black cup interiors now themselves forming the negative space of an intricate doily. On first glance this could be anything, ceramic, organic, crystallized, shell-like. It immediately has a natural or biological sensation, that is interpretable. On closer inspection you are engaging with crossed, linked and individual existences where everything is unique but we are simultaneously connected. What this asks of the viewer is to consider the strands of existence connected in pattern, in a formation that is a kaleidoscope of life, Baladi is in essence mapping out our interconnected narratives.
Baladis work is always large, and always intricate. Mostly bright and bold, but in this project the colour is drained out, it is a saturated version to reflect the theme. A sad and spiritual time, engaged in complex journey of metaphysical questions on life and death, exploring the subject matter of mediation, communication, ritual, beliefs and the ephemeral nature of time. Each image offers a subjective reading of a visitors destiny and then as a whole captures the language and spirit of the black coffee ritual.
Lara Baladi is represented by the Townhouse Gallery, Brancolini & Grimaldi Gallery, and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai and is a member of the Arab Image Foudation (AIF) where she directs magazine editorials and curates exhibitions and artist residencies.
Diary of the Future, 2010, Installation view, Gallery IVDE, Dubai