A wildly prolific artist (‘You are never calm in your head,’ relayed Nina during the Nile-side cup reading), Baladi is perhaps best known for her powerful ‘Diary of the Future’ cycle of works (2007-2011). Documenting the ritualised Turkish coffee drinking the artist ‘imposed’ on bedside visitors during her father’s final months fighting lung cancer, the cycle nonetheless has roots in happier times.
For two years before her parents returned to Cairo after decades abroad so her father could die in his birthplace, Baladi hosted high-spirited Sunday lunches with varying groups of friends, invariably capped off by Turkish coffee and, as Nina was often among the revellers, cup readings. The accuracy of Nina’s predictions kept guests coming back. ‘I thought, “I should film this,”’ recalls Baladi, but the idea got lost in life’s ebb and flow.
Years later, caring for her fading father, trapped in the huis clos of watching and waiting in death’s antechamber, she realised she needed to react to this devastating period, particularly as it overlapped a pivotal moment in her career. After a remark by a visiting couple likening cup-clinging rivulets of Turkish coffee grounds to lace, something clicked. ‘I knew Nina’s two years of extraordinary Sundays had to be shifted into this period,’ she recollects. ‘This is how I would record it.’
In the same way Nina harnesses the impact of a dreg-formed image to inspire her vision, so Baladi knew she was on to something major. ‘I could see the “Rose” piece in my head,’ she recalls, referencing a spiralling, web-like 4-metre-by-4-metre lace-and-coffee-cup photographic work shaped like a Gothic-style rosette window. She set about photographing every cup of coffee drunk by visitors (including Edward Said’s sister) to the epicentre of her father’s sickbed, their names and dates inscribed, their crossed destinies documented, their futures captured.
In those heavy times, it was oddly therapeutic: ‘I made my hell my work,’ she confesses. Sitting in front of an archive of some 3,000 photos, Baladi began to give it shape, unravelling a thread that would ultimately let prospective viewers ‘see the invisible.’ ‘Diary of the Future’ is a language within a language. The cups themselves constitute an impenetrable system of signs and codes, each delta harbouring a secret image, each image in turn siring a potential narrative which unfurls yet another layer of meaning.
Beyond this, the photos of the cups are inscribed within the narrative structure of the artwork itself. ‘Chronologie’ (2008), for example, a grid of 28 by eight images recounting the journey of Baladi’s father’s cancer, comports its own grammar. The images of stained cups, scrawled names and graphic grounds are read first vertically, then horizontally. A subtle syntax emerges, revealing the arc of time and the flow of visitors, punctuated by the recurring image of cups in a sink – a sink that, on the final day of condolences, is full.
‘Language reveals a lot,’ she admits. ‘I was always a little shy about saying things with words.’ This oddly uncomfortably relationship with language for a polyglot (Baladi speaks Arabic, French and English) seems to have led her to seek refuge in the image. ‘When I discovered the camera, I could reveal myself completely and fully, yet not speak. I found that space incredibly attractive.’
Untrained as an artist, she took to documentary photography, quickly abandoning it after feeling constrained by its conventions. Realising that she was not ‘interested in reality, as such,’ she turned to ‘collaging documentary’ – by putting ‘real’ imagery together, she altered the meanings of component images, leveraging duelling dynamics, archetypes and symbolism. “‘The Eye of Mary Magdalene’ became my first piece of art,” she explains. “It was a much more personal interpretation of reality.’
Articulate and well read, Baladi is a bit of an art world outsider. She considers her work highly accessible (‘It has to be: I live in Egypt, not New York!’) and yet it has a singular intellectual rigour. Shown for the first time in its complete form in 2010, ‘Diary of the Future’ still resonates today, partly by virtue of the universal fascination with reading portents in something as shifting as coffee grounds.
The future – its uncertainty, its promise – is on the mind of every Cairene in these sizzling days of curfew and caution, and the word unfailingly threads through graffiti sprayed around town. If ‘Diary of the Future’ conveys one single message, it is that our future is defined by a present that is constantly changing. The unique formations of dregs on each individual cup confirm that today’s future will be different from tomorrow’s, that it is ultimately a mirror of our present state. ‘I don’t read the future,’ whispers Nina through the Nile breeze. ‘I just read the present.’ Even though it is anchored somewhere in death, Baladi’s ‘Diary of the Future’ is all about reading life.
This article appears in the issue42Buy Now