The Genteel
December 12, 2017
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Larissa Sansour's "Nation Estate" (Photograph courtesy of Larissa Sansour).

With great anticipation, up-and-coming artist Larissa Sansour entered a competition for a Lacoste-sponsored photography prize at Lausanne's Musée de l'Élysée. One day, she was suddenly pulled off the shortlist. Lacoste explained that it was because her entry, "Nation Estate" depicted Palestine as a country reduced to one, sad council block, and thus was out of synch with the overall "Joie de Vivre" theme of the competition. However, Sansour claims that her work was simply "too Palestinian."

Photograph from Larissa Sansour's "Nation Estate"
project (Photograph courtesy of Larissa Sansour).

She grounds these accusations on the fact that her initial sketches were approved, and she was given a 4,000 Euro grant from Lacoste to continue. A month later, the Museum Director called Sansour to inform her that her nomination had been revoked due to its pro-Palestinian message.

"The decision was final, I was told, so there was no room for discussion. The museum had defended my work, but to no avail. As a form of protest against the Lacoste decision, the museum offered to show my work at a later stage - outside of the confines of the sponsorship. I was also asked to review a document. I automatically assumed that this document would be about the change to our contractual relationship, now that I was no longer in the competition," Sansour told me. But that was not the case.

"The next day, a mail from the museum asked me to approve a statement saying that I had withdrawn voluntarily from the prize 'in order to pursue other opportunities.' So the document for me to review was not related to the contract, but rather a statement aimed at masking the true reasons for my work being banned. Asking a censored artist to help cover up the censorship struck me as even more shocking than having my nomination revoked."

In any case, a flurry of publicity about the situation has ensured that Sansour is coming out a winner - her work is more in demand than ever before, and she has also been the subject of many interviews, including this one, for The Genteel.

What kind of artist would you say you are?

I am a multidisciplinary artist, so I work in various media. Every project I work on dictates the medium necessary for its completion. I work mostly with video, but I also often use photography.

I like to create scenarios where the Palestinian is no longer the victim, but instead enjoys the same power as anyone else in our media-driven, entertainment-led world.

Why photography?

Photography offers a certain flexibility when it comes to building imaginary worlds, and I appreciate that. In recent years my work has tended to lean more towards surreal or parallel universes that comment on the present political reality, and photography is a great tool for making these juxtapositions.

What's been the greatest influence on your art?

I am sure most of my influences come from my educational background, which is in Fine Art and Art History. The art historical context is always there in whatever project I engage in. However, my more immediate influences come from film, contemporary culture, pop music and television.

Has being Palestinian affected your work, if at all? 

I find it hard to imagine that Palestinian artists would not be associated with the politics that surround them. Artists reflect on their daily realities, and the Palestinian reality has an urgency that is hard to ignore. For a Palestinian, the political reality is always there even when you attempt to abstract from it.

So how does that political reality manifest itself in your work?

I contextualise Middle Eastern politics and culture within a more universal language related to pop culture, film and music. References and details ranging from sci-fi and spaghetti westerns to horror films converge with Middle Eastern politics and social issues to create intricate parallel universes in which a new value system can be decoded.

Photograph from Larissa Sansour's "Nation Estate"
project (Photograph courtesy of Larissa Sansour).

The dichotomy of belonging to and being removed from the very same piece of land - be it physically, mentally, administratively, militarily or otherwise - is central to my work.

While ordinary understandings of identity are linked to the idea of belonging to some kind of geographical unit - a region, a land, a country - for most Palestinians, the experience of being removed, exiled or cut off from the very same place they belong to and identify with is just as crucial for their self-understanding. The notion of belonging manifests itself in anything from architecture, ownership and geography to social relations, local produce and gastronomy. In contrast, tangible restrictions on mobility - walls, fences, checkpoints - maintain a permanent sense of being cut off, uprooted and kicked out.

What's the key message that you would like to send out to the world through your work?

I like to create scenarios where the Palestinian is no longer the victim, but instead enjoys the same power as anyone else in our media-driven, entertainment-led world. Works like "Bethlehem Bandolero," where I enter town like the lone gunslinger of spaghetti westerns, or "Happy Days," which shows the military occupation in a series of cozy vignettes, turn the world upside down. The people who are usually the subject of news reports and diplomatic initiatives instead become the commentators. No longer the underdogs, they stand at the same level as the rest of the world's media and power-players. The double irony is that something is lost in translation to a more fluent, funny and glossy medium. In doing so, I try to foreground an unspoken absence. Smiling through its pain, you might say.

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