Science fiction may not seem like an obvious platform through which to present Palestine to international audiences yet Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour believes that the medium’s darkness is well suited to exploring issues relating to her homeland:
“I think most of my work is ominous and I think that’s what sci-fi carries with it. There’s a warning that if things carry on the way that they are now, what will they look like in the future?”
Sansour’s latest show ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’ has recently opened at London’s Mosaic Rooms. In her first London solo exhibition, Sansour presents mixed-media work including film, photography and sculptural installations that evolved from her earlier acclaimed work ‘Nation Estate’ which met controversy in 2011.
‘Nation Estate’ was shortlisted for the high-profile Elysée Art Prize before being censored by the award’s sponsor, clothing firm Lacoste, who revoked Sansour’s shortlisting and later withdrew their sponsorship of the award entirely. At the time Sansour said that her work was removed after being considered ‘too pro-Palestinian’ by Lacoste.
Born in East Jerusalem, Sansour was sent to the UK by her parents to continue her education when the First Intifada broke out and schools in Palestine were forced to close. She later spent time in New York, Copenhagen, Russia and back in Palestine, and believes that these international experiences have helped her to consider different audiences and contexts when producing work:
“Living in the West helped me to realise how little people understood about the Palestinian predicament so obviously that informs the way I work because I am not just working for one audience. When I was younger I was more of a rebel and I didn’t care if people liked my work but now I feel differently. Discourse is very important and it’s more important than making a statement that people don’t want to listen to.”
Acknowledging Sansour’s desire to explore her native Palestine through art, it may seem surprising that more traditional styles of Palestinian art do not shape her work. Sansour feels however, that she has found an alternative approach that can find deeper resonance with her audience:
“I used to work with documentary but I had a major shift in 2009 when it became clear that the audience responded better when I spoke in fictional terms. I found that people just didn’t believe me because I was Palestinian so they thought I was biased, they couldn’t believe that ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ was doing all this. The onus on Palestinians is always to talk about ‘the other side’ but when I work in a fictional context I never face these challenges.”
The concept behind the current show was originally intended as a performance piece. In collaboration with her partner, Danish writer Soren Lind, Sansour wanted to explore the use of archeology as a tool of warfare – a tool which as Lund points out has been well used by Israel to support the Zionist narrative:
“We started getting into the idea of archeology as warfare and the relationship between this and history. We thought that if mythology plays such a large part in the formation of the nationalist colonial narrative of Israel, and archeology is the supporting discipline that confirms that narrative rather than bothering itself with the historical facts – then ‘historical facts’ themselves also become constructed much the same way as storytelling.”
Playing on this idea, the duo began constructing a plan to create thousands of porcelain bowls bearing the traditional black and white pattern of the Palestinian kuffiyeh and burying them across Palestine to be found by “future archeologists”. The reference behind the scheme was clear – if such ‘relics’ were uncovered sometime in the distant future would they also create a new ‘history’?
“Since we were already working in fictional grounds, why couldn’t we go one step further and create the myths themselves from scratch and bury the ‘evidence’ to support that myth.”
With the practicalities of carrying out this idea initially seeming overwhelming, Sansour and Lund instead developed the concept in to a science fiction film in which Lund wrote the script whilst Sansour produced the visuals.
The film’s protagonist is a rebel leader and it is her who takes up the duo’s original plan of burying porcelain bowls to be uncovered in the future. According to Sansour it is this role that leads the character “to refer to herself a ‘Narrative Terrorist’ – because she is intervening in history”.
Despite working for more than two and a half years on producing the film element of ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, for the current London exhibition Sansour and Lund also finally revisited their original plan to actually produce and bury porcelain bowls across Palestine.
Lund has just returned from the first leg of this venture on which he worked with local arts organisations and buried the bowls in various locations around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Dead Sea. As he is clear to point out though, “The idea is of course is not to claim a parallel civilisation that used this pottery, but simply to play with the idea of archeology being used to point in one particular direction.”
Whilst Sansour was unable to join Lund in Palestine to bury the porcelain, she did return home in March this year to run workshops with the latest generation of Palestinian artists at the ‘International Academy of Art – Palestine’. It was an experience that Sansour recalls as ‘inspiring’.
‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’ offers a bleak post-apocalyptic future for Palestine. Similarly, Sansour’s earlier ‘Nation Estate’ saw the entire Palestinian nation housed inside a single skyscraper with lost cities recreated on each floor. Both concepts are ominous futuristic visualisations. Through science fiction both works present imagined futures that also could only evolve if the current status quo in Palestine is allowed to run unchecked towards such dark conclusions.
These visions however do not mean that Sansour feels that things cannot develop for the better in Palestine. During her recent work at the Art Academy in Ramallah she saw signs of a desire for rethinking the established framework amongst Palestine’s new generation:
“I think that our parents’ generation is still getting over the shock of the Nakba but I think the new generation has to take matters in to their own hands and think differently. I found that some of the students I worked with in Ramallah were very receptive to this idea whilst others felt that they were somehow betraying the cause by not addressing the same things over and over again. The only way to proceed is to rethink the strategy.”
*Larissa Sansour’s ‘In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’ is on show at London’s Mosaic Rooms until 20/8/2016. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11am-6pm.