Borg Al Amal is a sound and sculptural installation which was commissioned for the 11th Cairo Biennale.
Built using the same red brick impromptu and informal housing used in impoverished areas of Cairo, which are settlements built on illegal land, the living conditions are famously overcrowded, unsanitary, and hazardous. The Shanti Town, known as Ashwa’iyat, was erected in the grounds of the Opera House, the entire complex being owned by the Egyptian military. Whilst the Cairo Biennale’s theme was titled ‘The Others’, Lara Al Baladi aimed to create a site-specific work which reflected who ‘the others’ were, being the traditional outcasts, in the context of a military/governmental base.
Inside the tower, Baladi had installed an immersive sound experience. In collaboration with the composer Nathaniel Robin Mann, Baladi juxtaposed the sound of a traditional instrumental symphony with the recorded noises of donkeys braying, thereby creating an ominous and haunting cry that was as moving and poignant as it was beautiful. Donkey brays are synonymous with a very common sound in agricultural parts of the Middle East, and evoke a sound which is as pained as it is humorous. Baladi, however, also related this sound to a beautiful requiem, which she felt as her father lost his battle to cancer during the same year she was commissioned by the Cairo Biennale.
The Opera House grounds have often hosted concerts, festivals, plays and fairs drawing all kinds of audiences. Borg Al Amal therefore received and introduced audiences, who included workers and government officials, to an international artistic community. Audiences were invited to be shocked, bemused and grateful. It was a work that challenged a new kind of non-political, but emotional, censorship during a very delicate time. Egyptians have famously translated and reflected their political critiques through humour, puppetry, subtle slogans and sarcasm, but to translate it into a subtle monument to creative endeavour, whilst on government ground, had pushed Baladi’s work to a new strata.
In enfranchising the local work force, consisting of skilled brick-makers, builders, craftsmen, and the like, into building the project in their locality, all stakeholders were included in developing their emotional attachment to a construction that was, in essence, a tribute to them, and to Cairo. The concrete foundations of the erection were left behind after the Biennial had finished, whilst the brickwork that had once been engraved with simple carvings representing Egyptian life, had been removed, highlighting the temporality of any particular time in Egypt’s long history.
Baladi’s relationship with her work is deeply emotional to the institutions of her life. Her father’s decision to pass away in the city where he was born, in the knowledge that he had terminal cancer, led her to possess a depth in her own relationship with her surroundings. The experience that audiences had with Borg Al Amal was a full on sensory assault, capturing the sights, sounds and smells of a Cairo that was at the apex of its modern history.
All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.