“Bethlehem Bandolero,” Interview With Artist Larissa Sansour

sansour.portrait3Born in Jerusalem, Larissa Sansour has become one of the most prolific and prominent Palestinian artists of recent years. Placing the history and contemporary reality of occupied Palestine at the center of her films and images, she has staged exhibitions around the world, including Istanbul, Paris, New York, Berlin, Stockholm, Hiroshima, Palestine, and currently at the Centro Centro in Madrid. Living and working in London and Copenhagen, Palestine Square was fortunate to catch up with Sansour and talk about her interest in science fiction, the role of art in promoting the Palestinian narrative, the creation of mythology, Falafel and Mloukhieh, and much else in between.

My first question is a bit of a cliché, but I’m sure many of our readers would like to know: What’s your connection to Palestine?

My father is Palestinian and my mother is Russian. I was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Bethlehem. Like many Palestinians born in the 1970s in the West Bank, I have experienced Palestine under direct military occupation by Israel. I also hold a Palestinian ID card and a Palestinian passport, which makes travel in and out of Palestine very restricted. I had to leave Palestine with the first uprising (Intifada) in 1988. Most schools in the West Bank closed down and many students who wanted to continue their education left the country.

Artist Steve Sabella, another Jerusalem native now based in Berlin, told me that he does not make art for Palestine. His art is about him and Palestine is reflected through that. Much of your art, as I interpret it, is inspired by Palestine as a political reality and not necessarily as a personal experience of Palestine. Is your art aiming to be a political intervention that helps re-frame our understanding of the Palestinian reality?

It is hard to separate art from its direct political or social context. Art has never operated in a vacuum. It is therefore hard for me to address my personal experience without addressing the political reality of the environment I find myself in. In a sense, my interest in Palestine is very much generated by me coming from there and experiencing one of the world’s biggest injustices first-hand. I do believe that the Palestinian issue is at the heart of any number of world problems, though, and one cannot isolate it as a local concern.

You play a lot with science fiction in your projects and you said that it is because science fiction acts as a useful critique of the absurdities of the Middle East and the current political impasse. How is science fiction useful, or more useful than other forms of artistic critique?

Funnily enough I was never really interested in sci-fi, but I guess I always found a refuge in fiction from the daily reality of occupation. In general, the sci-fi realm is a fantastic conceptual and philosophical playground. In several pieces over the past few years, I have been exploring not only the sci-fi genre  but also the comic book superhero. Both forms have an inherent ability to make accessible some of our deepest yearnings and ambitions, whether as individuals or as a culture, in a way that never hampered or restricted by a non-fictional reality but on the contrary, naturally inspired by it.

Also, despite its stylized imagery, sterile futurism, and high-cost production, sci-fi tends to allow for a specific kind of almost nostalgic framing of the topic at hand. Sci-fi almost invariably carries within it a sense of retro, as ideas of the future tend to appear standard and cliché at the same time as they come across as visionary. In the case of Palestine, there is an eternal sense of foreshadowing statehood, independence, and the end of occupation. The ambitious ideas that we hope to achieve have long since become so repetitive that the odd mix of nostalgia and accomplishment that the sci-fi genre often embodies lends it itself well to the topic.

The first Palestinian planned city of Rawabi on the occupied West Bank is remarkably dissimilar from every Palestinian city on both sides of the 1949 Armistice Line. While Palestinian cities are low-rise and spread-out, Rawabi appears akin to an Israeli settlement – a circular, densely-packed enclave with high-rises. I can’t help but think that life is mimicking art. Rawabi is the Nation Estate (2012) you depict: a condensed Palestinian existence advertised as “the high life” (literally and figuratively; the city’s luxury apartments are clearly marked for affluent Palestinians) and where Palestinian cultural identity is reduced to manufactured symbols like stonework decorating the residences. All the while Palestinian cities are strangled by Israeli settlements and also compelled, or decreed, to build vertically as horizontal expansion is precluded by Israeli occupation. Your project vividly illustrates the Palestinians’ predicament on the land of a would-be state. In an interview you have remarked how “hyperbole” or “the idea of going overboard in producing an art piece” allows art to captivate a larger audience and subverts the traditional role of art from something esoteric to something more mainstream.

At the same time, we saw resistance to your project in the Lacoste objection to your nomination [the French brand labeled the Nation Estate exhibition “too pro-Palestinian,” according to Sansour, and demanded it be removed from consideration for the 2011 €25,000 Lacoste Elysee Prize awarded by the Swiss Musee de l’Elysee]. While your project – film and images – was ambitious and garnered attention, there is still a reluctance in the West toward affording Palestinians “permission to narrate,” in Edward Said’s words. Many Westerners, especially in the US, find it hard to believe that the occupation isn’t a relatively benign thing for the Palestinians. As an artist, how do you go beyond grabbing attention and move toward reframing perceptions that are highly contentious and influenced by years of one-sided narration? In short, how do you get people to not just listen and see, but believe and understand the Palestinian predicament?

01. NATION ESTATE

My work has always been inspired by the situation in the Middle East, and Nation Estate is directly informed by the events of recent years, specifically the Palestinian bid for full membership at the UN. With Israeli settlement activity confiscating more and more Palestinian land, it struck me that for a Palestinian state ever to materialize, one would have to think vertically. This thought was the starting point for the Nation Estate project. In Nation Estate, Palestinians finally have their state in the shape of a single skyscraper housing the entire population. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem on the third floor, Ramallah on the fourth, Bethlehem on the fifth, and so on. Aiming for a sense of belonging, the lobby areas of each floor reenacts central squares and landmarks, the elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor opening up onto a full-scale version of the Dome of the Rock.

03. MAIN LOBBY (mag.print)

04. MANGER SQUARE (mag.print)

02. JERUSALEM FLOOR (mag.print)

Nation Estate is heavily laden with elements of tradition and culture, such as food, embroidery, national symbols, and geographical landmarks, but all these are contextualized in an unfamiliar setting or a posited space. The film is saturated with certain symbolisms and clichés putting Nation Estate, the building, on a par with a national museum, in which those elements retain their identified meaning yet stop having any real function beyond that. Nation Estate sees the state of Palestine as either planted the past, like a relic, or firmly looking towards the future, but never actually as a viable condition in the present.

 

The Palestinian experience is very much linked to migration and displacement, and the Palestinian psyche is a troubled one. Many Palestinians see themselves as citizens in flux, regardless of where they live, waiting for the right to return home. However, in my most recent major works, my objective was to posit a new standard for understanding the Palestinian condition. The  aim has never been to offer any conclusions, but rather provide the discourse with a “what if” scenario in an attempt to understand a current political dialogue that seems, once again and despite solid efforts to avoid it, to have reached an impasse.  In certain situations, the only way to proceed is to posit a theory or an alternative space—this might work along abstract terms, but could also yield a greater understanding of the problem at hand, offering up a conclusion that would not have transpired without a fictional or abstract intervention. What I am most fascinated by is the ability of an artwork to foreshadow political change, but remain grounded solidly in its art practice.

Building on the above, what has been the reception to your art exhibits? And how has the reception varied between Europe and the much more stridently pro-Israel American audience?

The reception of the work is always different from one place to another. In Palestine, the reception is usually overwhelmingly positive. I think Palestinians have an easier time relating to the absurdity of the political situations underlined in my work and the surreal nature of life under occupation. In a way, I think, my work is more tangible for people who experience occupation first hand and on a daily basis. It is more of an abstract picture, say, to a European audience. People in Europe to tend to respond positively to the framework in which my work appears and to the political arguments I bring forth. But I feel that the engagement remains in the realm of the rational, which is of course very understandable.

I think there is much more restriction when it comes to showing in the US. A couple of group shows I appeared in were about to be censored just because there were Palestinian artists in it. Several places where I showed my work asked me to alter some of the titles, so there is a real sense that freedom of artistic expression is not a Palestinian artist’s right in the US. At least that’s how it used to be. Perhaps things are changing.

Bethlehem Bandolero (2005) and Happy Days (2006) both borrow from 1970s theme music and styles and present the occupation as a form of entertainment. In doing this, you’re utilizing humor and irony to unveil the absurdities. 

I saw both projects as a commentary on the fact that the tragedy and indignities of the Palestinian people often amount to no more than entertainment, both in media reports and in the diplomatic efforts of the West, particularly the US, where it seems as if endless and futile negotiations act not to secure Palestinian rights but to keep the Palestinians distracted through the circus of “the “peace process” – a show the West can watch from a distance. The substance is not about justice and rights but the illusion of their pursuit has to be maintained for opportunistic reasons, both for Israel and the US. It’s incredibly frustrating, but humor has a way of being mocking that isn’t demoralizing. And I think you achieve this quiet well. Is this your intention behind these projects? And on the use of humor and irony, do you think your audience responds better to this style of art?

In my work, I 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 as 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 the translation to a more fluent, funny and glossy medium. My work foregrounds an unspoken absence.

The intertwined nature of food and politics has been a theme in some of your work, such as in Soup Over Bethlehem – Mloukhieh (2006) [Watch Sansour with her family around a Bethlehem dinner table where a talk about Mloukhieh flows into politics]. Additionally, the culinary exhibit Falafel Road (2010) poses the question, “Did Israel Steal the Falafel from the Palestinians?” No American would argue that sushi is American, but Israeli appropriation does not pay any heed to Palestinian culinary heritage as Palestinian dishes have been appropriated in the service of Israeli nationalism.  bblalala

falafel5

The reasons for Israeli/Zionist appropriation are obvious; their success, I think, has been largely due to the fact that Zionism as a nationalist movement was already well-developed in its articulation to Western audiences long before modern Palestinian nationalism arose. In other words: Palestinians are playing catch up. Israel got first dibs at telling its story, setting the parameters of understanding, and that has allowed it to define to its advantage the history and the very land and food of historic Palestine. Now it is Palestinian artists, filmmakers, scholars, writers, etc. telling the Palestinian story. The fact that Palestinians were “visited” by a Zionist colonization that had already made its voice heard meant that perforce Palestinians responded in the second act, so to speak. I’m simply making the observation that the Palestinian narrative is taking the stage in the West after decades of Zionist narration. As a Europe-based artist, how do you relate to the increasingly high-profile production and recognition (in the West) of Palestinian art, from Palestinian cinema (such as Hany Abu Assad’s films now nominated for Oscars) to Palestinian designers and artists? Does it open up opportunities for you? And what hopes do you have for it?

I think this again helps shift the power balance. The image is vital in the war on narrative and I think that’s why an interest in art, film, and design plays a major role in the advancement of the Palestinian presence in Western culture. Most importantly, the potency of the Palestinian image is dependent on the context it appears in. I think that divorcing the Palestinian image from that of the victim in a documentary or of the villain in the media to that of the commentator and analyzer is crucial, and I think the recognition of Palestinian filmmakers and artists is a positive move towards that goal.

Your project Land Confiscation Order 06/24/T (2008) addresses the fact that any hope for even a truncated Palestinian state is vanishing through continued Israeli land garbs. Such a prospect is critical since Palestinian identity is so closely intertwined with geography. As Palestinians are displaced, identities feel disordered, out of place, a theme you explore in Run Lara Run. This sense of pessimism shifts into an optimism, which you call naïve, in A Space Exodus, a piece where the Palestinian flag is planted on the moon in homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Palestinian identity appears to be fluid: Palestinians are dispossessed of their land but Palestinian expressions of identity and hope persist despite that dislocation. How do you navigate the terrain of identity which is continually dynamic?

Land Confiscation is a very autobiographical short video that I made in 2006. My family received a letter from the Israeli government saying that our land and house was being confiscated by the state of Israel in order to build a settlers-only road [these roads connect Israeli settlements to other illegal settlements and Israel, and are reserved for sole use by settlers] that would need to run through the land and therefore eat up the areas around it. I found the matter of fact-ness of this document to not only be shocking, but the way in which it was delivered to us was very disturbing. The letter was pinned under a stone in the land itself, not sent to our post box. This is a systematic tactic that Israel uses when communicating with Palestinians.

A Space Exodus re-imagines one of America’s finest moments — the moon landing — as a Palestinian triumph. The work addresses a specific problem, but it also comments on the power of images and codes and their relationship to how we perceive things. A Space Exodus references the exodus of 700,000 Palestinians from their land in 1948 and the consequences of that event that prevail to this day, with Palestinians facing ever more subtle methods of so-called “silent transfer” by the state of Israel.

The film also references the biblical exodus as well as the Hollywood “epic,” Exodus (1960), each of which has done its share of damage in influencing international understanding of Palestine and lending credibility to the Zionist mythology of “A land without a people for a people without a land.” It’s fascinating for me to examine this interplay between reality and mythology-building.

SPACEflag120cm (1)

Most of the elements in the piece are there to deliver a slick powerful take on Palestinian identity, something one does not see very often. More often than not, Palestinians are the targets of documentaries, but by putting them in a hi-tech space context, the video becomes a comment on the power struggle involved. Of course, the work reflects the fact that Palestinians are in limbo without a state, as their homeland shrinks like a spot on the horizon. Yet the sadness of Space Exodus is also implicit in the contemporary commentaries on the US space program, from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Solaris and even David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

XX1. ASE - EARTH

The moon landings reflected a widespread anxiety that, in leaving earth, we risked never being able to return home again. Yet because this anxiety is universal, the pain of the real, forced exodus of the Palestinians is doomed to remain a private grief, forgotten by the rest of the world.

Every artist chooses his or her medium. You have adopted the camera in many of your projects. What has attracted you to a moving visual image and why do you find this to be an ideal form of expression, rather than, say, a painting?

You can question the authenticity of a painting, but you cannot do that easily with a camera. I first started to work with film in 2003 during the Israeli siege of Bethlehem, when many Palestinians truly felt that they might be seeing their cities for the last time. Like many other Palestinian towns, demolished by Israel in 1948, I thought that Bethlehem was about to meet the same fate. I think there is an urge in that part of the world to document because you never know if your very existence may be questioned in the future.

As a prelude to a final question: I’m sure you do not want to divulge too much and I won’t ask you to, but can you give our readers a foretaste of your ideas for future projects? What is currently fascinating you? What would you be interested in exploring? And how and where do you see yourself growing as an artist in the foreseeable future?

I am currently working on a project called In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain (2014). It is a 20-minute sci-fi video essay inspired by the politicized archaeology being carried out in present day Israel/Palestine. The film combines live motion, CGI [computer generated imagery], and archival photographs, and it explores how myth and fiction manufacture fact, history and national identity.

BURIAL (small)

FLYING.PORCELAIN (small)

SPACESHIPS (small)

In a performance staged in the film, crates loaded with hundreds of pieces of elaborate porcelain – the suggestion being that these belong to a lost nation of hi-tech, highly sophisticated, yet entirely fictional Palestinians – are buried deep into the ground in the West Bank, for future archaeologists to excavate. Once unearthed, this tableware provides evidence supporting the myth/existence of the historical hi-tech people. The project itself explores the idea of myth being not only about having some truth value but as the establishment, implementation, and sedimentation of new truths. By sowing a myth of its own, the work becomes a historical and narrative intervention – the de facto creation of a nation.

And now to a more straightforward end: When and where is your next exhibit?

I am currently showing at the Manchester Art Gallery and have a range of shows set up for 2015 – Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, a show in Abu Dhabi, as well as an interesting food and politics event in Dubai. My work will also be touring venues in Palestine next year, something I am looking forward to. At present, I am very busy developing my new film project and look forward to presenting it in galleries, museums and film festivals starting 2016.

Larissa Sansour’s exhibition at the Feminisarte III collection, which features female artists from around the world, at the Centro Centro in Madrid is showing through 16 August 2015.

Sansour was recently awarded a production grant from the Doha Film Institute for the filming of In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain. 

To learn more about Sansour’s art work, including past and future exhibitions, visit her website.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.