Lebanese art in Dubai

Lara Baladi’s new works chronicle the time of her father’s death through coffee cups. Nyree Barrett meets the artist

‘Memories Left Behind’ by Alia Felasi
‘Memories Left Behind’ by Alia Felasi
‘Short Life’ by Roudha Al Shamsi
‘Short Life’ by Roudha Al Shamsi
‘Bandaging your Pain’ by Hessa Al Butti
‘Bandaging your Pain’ by Hessa Al Butti

Lebanese artist Lara Baladi has bravely recorded the intimate family time preceding her father’s death through a rather unusual study. The giant canvases (these photos don’t do them justice) show hundreds and hundreds of coffee cups, emptied and turned over for analysis. Those unfamiliar with the tradition of cup reading may see just patterns, but those who have grown up with the ritual, from Palestine to Turkey, will see futures, failures and fantasies. ‘In the Arab world people can connect immediately to these works, because the tradition of reading cups stands across generations, across classes and across countries,’ explains Baladi.

It is a language of divination and hope, and a language that tries to calm those existential anxieties that Baladi sees in all of us. The tradition began in her home many Sundays ago when a family friend started reading the cups as a way to cap off lazy lunches. Later, when the family gathered after Baladi’s father became ill, the readings became a way of focusing on a future other than that looming over her father. The ritual may be culturally specific, but Baladi explains that the need is entirely universal.

‘It’s a very alarming moment when someone’s health situation just drops,’ explains Baladi. ‘I thought: OK, this is it, I’m going to stay next to him, but I’ve got to do something with my art because I don’t want to disconnect from my life completely. Art is how I cope with life.’

Baladi’s late father seemed at times ambivalent about her art, but near the end of the project when he had trouble eating anything, he drank a cup of coffee to be analysed and photographed: a quiet nod of approval.

Her grandmother, however, often saw the impractical side of Baladi’s project. ‘Where have you been for two days?!’ she would shout. ‘Where are all the cups?! I need cups! We have people waiting!’ Baladi mimics her grandmother, breaking into a nostalgic chuckle.

In some of her pieces, Baladi has surrounded the cups with lace patterns, an intentional reference to the fact that it was women surrounding her father at this time. Some pieces contain signatures of those who drank the cups, while others show the dirty cups in the sink, representing the aftermath – the heavy fall we feel when the need to be gathered together disappears. Baladi’s works become more stirring the longer you stare. Want to see them for yourself? When you visit the gallery, we recommend taking someone who understands the tradition of coffee cup reading; let their eyes be your guide.

‘Diary of the Future’ continues at Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde until June 10.

Also this week…

Collaborative photography exhibition ‘Private(ly)’ features evocative work by 18 local female artists, all of whom are hoping to explore the little-discussed private world of Emirati women. Here’s what some of them are trying to say

‘Short Life’ by Roudha
Al Shamsi ‘Our dreams and true identity are more powerful than we think they are, but we hesitate in fulfilling them because we are afraid of making mistakes and getting lost. This photo expresses the life and the dreams we can’t achieve because we are imperfect: our short lives are like a broken tape.’

‘Memories Left Behind’ by Alia Felasi

‘This is about my memories: you see two girls who are actually the same girl, just as a child and an adult. The long braid represents the memories that have been with me from childhood.’

‘Bandaging your Pain’ by Hessa Al Butti
‘This girl first tried to hide her private grief by putting on make-up and wearing luxurious jewellery, but others still noticed the pain on her face. Finally, she decided to bandage her face to hide her feelings from
the world: even when wearing the most fashionable abaya her heart is full of sadness.’

‘Private(ly)’ continues at the Gallery of Light at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, until June 9.

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