Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sansour art: Alligator bites olive tree

“So that alligator bites after all!” That’s what my friend Nadine Toukan exclaimed on Facebook Tuesday night, December 20.

Larissa Sansour "too pro-Palestinian" for Lacoste
The alligator in question is the French clothing brand Lacoste that has demanded the removal of Jerusalem-born Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour from a major photographic competition for being “too pro-Palestinian.”

How, I wonder, can you be “too pro” your nationality? Would an American be labeled “too pro-American,” or a Venezuelan “too pro-Venezuelan…? Would a Canadian depicting a Maple tree be dubbed “too pro-Canadian?” Would an English person be called “too pro-English” for drawing the Tower of London or St. Paul’s?

The Lacoste-sponsored competition is for the prestigious €25,000 ($33,000) Lacoste Elysée Prize, which is now in its second edition and is awarded by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée.

Sansour was one of the eight artists shortlisted for the 2011 award.

Last November 9, she wrote on her website: “Very excited to be nominated for the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011.”

But in a press release dated December 20, the artist reveals that Lacoste has demanded her nomination be revoked. The French brand justified their refusal
 to support Sansour’s work by tagging it “too pro-Palestinian.” The winner is to be selected by a special jury in January 2012.

Sansour’s work is immersed in the current political dialogue and she brings into play video art, photography, experimental documentary, the book form and the Internet.

The artist, who studied Fine Art in Copenhagen, London and New York, borrows heavily from film and pop culture. Sansour describes her work as “approximating the nature, reality and complexity of life in Palestine and the Middle East to visual forms normally associated with entertainment and televised pastime.”

Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour
Her grandiose and often humorous schemes clash with the gravity expected from works commenting on the region. So why then was she named then shortlisted for the award, when it was obvious what her work was about?

As a nominee, Sansour was granted a bursary of €4,000 ($5,200) and given a free hand to produce a portfolio of images for the final ruling. In November, three photos for Sansour’s Nation Estate project were accepted. The prize administrators also congratulated her on her work and professionalism.

Sansour’s name featured on all the literature relating to the prize and on the website as an official nominee. Her name has since been removed, just as her project has been withdrawn from an upcoming issue of contemporary art magazine ArtReview introducing the nominated artists.

Sansour says an attempt was made to mask the reason for her dismissal, when she was asked to approve a statement saying she was pulling out from the competition “in order to pursue other opportunities.” She refused.

She adds: “I am very sad and shocked by this development. This year Palestine was officially admitted to UNESCO, yet we are still being silenced. As a politically involved artist I am no stranger to opposition, but never before have I been censored by the very same people who nominated me in the first place. Lacoste’s prejudice and censorship puts a major dent in the idea of corporate involvement in the arts. It is deeply worrying.”

Sansour's Nation Estate: The lobby of the Palestinian state skyscraper
Sansour’s shortlisted work, Nation Estate, is conceived in the wake of Palestine’s bid for UN membership. Nation Estate depicts a science fiction-style Palestinian state in the form of a single skyscraper housing the entire Palestinian population.

Sansour describes the project “as set within a grim piece of high-tech architecture where the narrative photo series envisions la joie de vivre of a Palestinian state rising from the ashes of the peace process.

In this dystopian vision, Palestinians have their nation-state in the form of a single skyscraper -- The Nation Estate. Surrounded by a concrete wall, the colossal hi-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem on 3, Ramallah on 4, Sansour’s own hometown of Bethlehem on 5, etc. Traveling between cities, previously marred by checkpoints, is now by elevator!

The elevator doors on Jerusalem floor 3 open onto the Dome of the Rock
Another floor has an olive tree
Aiming for a sense of belonging, Sansour has the lobby of each floor reenacting iconic squares and landmarks. The elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor open onto a full-scale Dome of the Rock, for example.
Regretting Lacoste’s decision to censor Sansour’s work, the Lausanne-based Musée de l’Elysée has offered to exhibit the Nation Estate project outside the confines of the Lacoste sponsorship.

Sansour's work features in galleries, museums, film festivals and art publications worldwide. Recent solo shows include exhibitions at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, Galerie La B.A.N.K in Paris, DEPO in Istanbul and Jack the Pelican in New York.

She shared in the biennials in Istanbul, Busan and Liverpool. Her work has appeared at the Third Guangzhou Triennial in China, LOOP in Seoul, South Korea, Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and PhotoCairo4 in Egypt.

Her short film A Space Exodus was put up in the Best Short category at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Among the exhibitions of 2011 are LIVING at Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark and the Incheon Women Artists' Biennial in South Korea.

Never before did anyone in the art world consider Sansour’s work “too pro-Palestinian.” So what happens when the alligator bites an olive tree?

Update, Thursday 22 December

Larissa Sansour announced “amazing news” on her Facebook page on Thursday 22 December: “The Musée de l'Elysée has decided to cancel the prize and side with the artist instead of the big corporate sponsor.”

A press release announced that the Musée de l’Elysée has decided to suspend the organization of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011.

“The Musée de l’Elysée based its decision on the private partner’s wish to exclude Larissa Sansour, one of the prize nominees.

“We reaffirm our support to Larissa Sansour for the artistic quality of her work and her dedication. The Musée de l’Elysée has already proposed to her to present at the museum the series of photographs “Nation Estate,” which she submitted in the framework of the contest.

“For 25 years, the Musée de l’Elysée has defended with strength artists, their work, freedom of the arts and of speech. With the decision it has taken today, the Musée de l’Elysée repeats its commitment to its fundamental values.”