Politically-charged censorship or crisis-management gone horribly wrong? The tale of Palestinian multimedia artist Larissa Sansour's dramatic removal from the shortlist of the 2011 Lacoste Elysée Prize appears to have torpedoed the French luxury-goods brand's association with Lausanne institution Musée de l'Elysée, which on Wednesday evening announced that it was immediatley cancelling its partnership to host the €25,000 photography award, now only in its second year.
The news came after a day of worldwide comment and conjecture on Web sites, blogs, and Twitter following the decision by Lacoste management to withdraw Bethlehem-born Sansour's photography project "Nation Estate," from the shortlist of eight nominees. With only a brief statement issued early on Wednesday relating that Sansour's work was deemed inappropriate for the show (themed "Joie de Vivre"), the silence from the host institution and the French brand only fueled speculation and possible motivations for the artist's sudden disqualification. That night, then, a Musée de l'Elysée spokeswoman announced that the insitution was dissolving its relationship with Lacoste as a result of Sansour's removal.
"The Musée de l’Elysée has decided to suspend the organisation of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011," read the statement. 'Each nominee had carte blanche to interpret the theme in which ever way they favored, in a direct or indirect manner, with authenticity or irony, based upon their existing or as an entirely new creation.... The Musée de l’Elysée has 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. 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."
"They appear to have decided against censorship," Sansour told ARTINFO Wednesday afternoon. "And I really, really appreciate their decision. I am thrilled. As a Palestinian artist, this is not the first time works of mine or shows I have been in have been exposed to politically-motivated pressure. I can only speculate as to Lacoste's reasons, but fearing bad press for coming out as pro-Palestinian seems a very likely interpretation."
Sansour, 38, is widely known for her intense, politically-charged, and often wry video works exploring aspects of Palestinian identity and notions of statehood, within the present-day reality of Israeli occupation. Having studied in Copenhagen and London, where she is currently based, and having exhibited worldwide, Sansour produced a typically-idiosyncratic submission for the Lacoste award, creating "Nation Estate" as a photo-project featuring a vertiginous skyscraper that dwarfs Palestinian towns and cities (referring to the British usage of the term "estate" as tower block housing projects).
"'Nation Estate' is a project I have been thinking about for many years," Sansour explained. "With brutal Israeli settlement expansion in Palestine and a peace process in tatters, it seems quite straightforward that any final border agreement will leave Palestinians with hardly any land for a state. The idea of 'Nation Estate' is that should any future Palestinian state hope to house the entire population, one would have to think vertically. And hence the idea of a single skyscraper with whole cities on each floor came about. As the piece looks now, it is a photo project revealing everyday situations from this building. The nation state reduced to a building simply became the 'Nation Estate' — a single block of forced migrants. It's subtitle, 'Living the High Life,' expands on the irony."
Having submitted preliminary sketches for her work to the committee in November, and having received a €4,000 working grant from Lacoste, Sansour says the news of her removal came as a complete surprise. This surprise was compounded by a request from the organizers, asking her to sign a statement saying that she withdrew from her nomination "in order to pursue other opportunities." This she refused outright.
"The process with Lacoste is a strange one," said Sansour. "As far as I am informed, [they] approved my nomination, despite — the museum told me — raising initial concerns as to my nomination. But over the phone last Wednesday the director of the Musée de l'Elysée told me: 'Although the work is not directly anti-Israeli, it is too pro-Palestinian for Lacoste to support.' Yet a joint statement from Lacoste and the museum issued earlier today stated that the reason for my dismissal was that 'Nation Estate' did not comply with the theme of the show. This despite the museum having explicitly given all artists carte blanche to interpret this theme and also directly encouraged irony. Also, there has been no mention of my work not complying with the theme at all prior to today'.
While Lacoste have yet to amplify on their decision, the exclusing of Sansour from the prize's shortlist reignited debate about the impact of corporate sponsorship of such events. Following Lacoste's decision this week, Sansour says the Musee de L'Elysee had initially offered to show her work in a separate exhibition, which would take the issue of censorship in the context of exhibition as a key theme. "My communication with the museum has been professional, pleasant, and unproblematic," she said. "They have supported my work and shown appreciation for my vision all through the process." Sansour, meanwhile, is also currently developing a sci-fi short with a production company, which should be finished by late spring.
Arsalan Mohammad is the editor of Harper's Bazaar Art Arabia, a new bi-monthly magazine covering Middle Eastern and North African arts worldwide, published by ITP in Dubai. He also contributes to Time Out Berlin, artinfo.com, Esquire Middle East and the Art Newspaper. He is based in Berlin and Dubai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.