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Contemporary art installation at Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery explores images of Egypt
Detail of Oum el Dounia by Lara Baladi (b. 1969, Beirut), Belgium, 2000-2007. Wool and cotton. Courtesy of the artist.

WASHINGTON, DC.- A large-scale tapestry by Egyptian-Lebanese photographer and multimedia artist Lara Baladi (b. 1969, Beirut, Lebanon) is being exhibited in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery pavilion this summer as part of the museum’s “Perspectives” contemporary art series. On view Aug. 29–June 5, 2016, “Perspectives: Lara Baladi” centers on “Oum el Dounia,” a tapestry created by digital loom and based on a photographic collage. Immense in scale—nearly 10 feet tall and over 29 feet wide—the work playfully illustrates a genesis story that upends stereotypical views of Egypt and the desert.

“Baladi’s multidisciplinary work questions and experiments with the photographic medium, its history and role in shaping perceptions and narratives of the Middle East,” said Carol Huh, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Freer and Sackler galleries.

Visitors will be able to explore details of the collage and Baladi’s current ongoing project “Vox Populi, Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age,” a digital archive and series of new media works Baladi created with MIT’s OpenDoc Lab of the 2011 demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, as recorded through images, videos, texts and social-media content. As of today, the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath remain the most digitally documented and disseminated event in modern history.

The Sackler Gallery’s “Perspectives” series presents large-scale works by internationally renowned contemporary artists. Previous exhibitions have featured the works of Cai Guo-Qiang, Y.Z. Kami, Anish Kapoor, Chiharu Shiota, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Do-Ho Suh, Hale Tenger and Ai Weiwei, among others. Baladi is the first Egyptian artist to be showcased in the series.

“Perspectives: Lara Baladi” is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and sponsored by Altria Group. Additional funding provided by the gallery’s endowment for Contemporary Asian Art.

Egypt is often called “oum el dounia,” or “mother of the world” in Arabic. The tapestry was originally created in 2007 with the use of a digital loom, and was based on a photographic collage commissioned by the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain (Paris) in 2000. The visual story in Baladi’s tapestry is told through images reflective of her personal experience of the desert and symbolic elements based on myths and archetypal characters.

“In thinking about how to represent my experience of the desert, I looked to fairytales such as Alice in Wonderland and The Little Mermaid, old picture postcards and my own archive,” said Cairo-based Baladi. “The resulting collage is a dreamlike journey, turning the stereotypical image of the desert upside down.”

The collage begins with a photograph taken by Rudolf Lehnert (1878–1948) of three bedouins sitting on sand dunes and looking to the horizon. Lehnert set up a studio in Cairo with Swiss businessman Ernst Heinrich Landrock (1878–1966), and together they were successful in producing postcards for tourists in the international market hungry for images of the “Orient.”

Above the sharp horizontal line that separates land and sky is a patchwork of photographs from Baladi’s archive of desert skies, underwater views; collaged together, they refer to the biblical “third day of creation” when land was separated from water. Imaginary figures frolic across the bright desert landscape.

There are also two heroines in the story: Alice, in the white dress, represents innocence, inspired by the fairytale Alice in Wonderland. The Mermaid, who represents both Alice’s sister and Mary Magdalena, symbolizes the human search for understanding and love. She ascends to the sky, becoming an all-embracing force, protecting the Earth and looking down on Adam and Eve.

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