Friday, July 12, 2024

The page of Lara Baladi’s “ABC: A Lesson in History” that teaches the letter “jeem” with the word “jaish” (army). (Image: Lara Baladi)

Recipient of the small artist-run press Orbis Editions’ “Cantabrigia Award,” Lara Baladi’s“ABC: A Lesson in History” is a smart, irreverent work. Risograph printed with black, pink and gold ink, the volume is a sleek ode to the aesthetic and political power of language – a “primer of revolt” that borrows the visual language of Egyptian and Russian propaganda educational materials.

The book takes as its starting point the artist’s introduction to Arabic. Baladi’s Lebanese-Egyptian family relocated to France during the Lebanese civil war in 1975. There, they were met with casual xenophobia, and the young Baladi proclaimed to her mother that she’d never speak the language again.

Once a source of shame, learning Arabic became enlightening for Baladi. During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, there was a new sense of urgency to understand the protest signs around her. A fellow protester and actress taught Baladi the basic alphabet in just three weeks, bringing the language to life with exaggerated movements and pronunciation.

“ABC: A Lesson in History” shares that sense of movement. Each page introduces a letter with calligraphic mark-making and revolution-inspired words. The drawings are enigmatic, at times lighthearted or pointedly critical. A page for the letter “jeem” uses the word “jaish” (army); a mess of letters surrounds archival photos of a tank, a fighter plane and a ship. For the letter “sheen,” Baladi mobilizes the word “shabab” (youth). The image for this is a pixelated tuk-tuk vehicle surrounded by fire and explosions – perhaps a nod to the power and pitfalls of digital documentation of resistance movements.

The book was co-published with the Mexico City-based press Gato Negro Ediciones and is for sale online at its Shopify store. “The books of Gato Negro do not wish to deconstruct reality through ornamental distractions,” its website says. Refreshing and real, Baladi’s volume is anything but that. Her final page is an open invitation to action: “Yalla” (let’s go!).


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This post was updated Jan. 16, 2023, to change the image credit, add information to an image description and remove incorrect biographical information.