WASHINGTON, DC — In 2011, the Egyptian-Lebanese artist Lara Baladi began her ongoing project Vox Populi, Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age, her attempt to archive the flood of documentation that emerged out of the events of Tahrir Square and its aftermath. The resulting web-based installation is a present-day survey of Egypt pinned to up-to-date moments, composed of news articles and recently uploaded photos and material.
Baladi has long harbored this interest in archiving and in the images coming out of Egypt; “Oum el Dounia,” an earlier work, examines Egypt through a more personal and historic lens. A large-scale tapestry based on a collage of photographs, “Oum el Dounia” (or “The Mother of the World”) is a portrait of Egypt built on coded visuals, currently on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery as part of its Perspectives series. Composed, in particular, of images concerning origins, the collage weaves together aspects of the country from its archaeology and its myths to the artist’s own memories of it.
Transformed into a tapestry in 2007 by a digital loom, “Oum el Dounia” first existed as a mishmash of archival material and Baladi’s personal pictures that she began piecing together in 2000. From afar, it appears as a flat rendering of a desert split into sand and sky, with people and objects embedded in the landscape, but the photographs form a hybrid of separate stories rather than a continuous narrative. Although the images are recognizable — one may spot a sphinx, hieroglyphs, sea creatures, mermaids, and even references to Alice in Wonderland — their meanings in this context is largely cryptic, as they come together to form Baladi’s personal ode to Egypt and its landscape.
“One of the starting points for the work was thinking of her experience of her desert and her own experiences of picnicking with her friends in the desert, her own journeys through the desert,” curator Carol Huh told Hyperallergic. “It is her way of looking at the space, her memory of how the desert looks to her.” Along with a recreated scene of Baladi and her friends lounging in the sand are images of starfish and shells, which refer to fossil records; myriad images from old postcards; a rock shaped like a mushroom that Baladi once noticed; and the more puzzling appearances like a man walking a turkey or another dressed as a caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe.
The title “Oum el Dounia” itself is a familiar nickname for Egypt, and Baladi’s intimate way of portraying the country offers glimpses of an Egypt far removed from revolution — even if they are not immediately familiar to us. With the politically saturated images that have emerged from the region in recent years, as emphasized by Baladi’s ongoing archival project, it’s refreshing to recall this prior work and receive another perspective in the form of a surreal experience that draws from multiple time periods and sources, but still remains anchored in Egypt.
Baladi, therefore, also underlines how we consume such images and, consequently, how we “read” Egypt. At the tapestry’s far left edge is a hand-colored photograph of three bedouins and a camel perched on a dune taken by Rudolf Franz Lehnert. Lehnert ran a successful photography business in Egypt, specializing in these romanticized scenes of the desert that appealed to tourists looking for exotic images; his images consequently became prevalent representations of the country. Baladi’s inclusion of a large sphinx, too, emphasizes the types of imagery many expect to emerge from the country — how a complex place can be captured, consumed, and widely appreciated through singular images. “Oum el Dounia,” filled elsewhere with riddles, encourages one to see beyond such popular narratives and representations.