Art on the edge

Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour draws inspiration from the political occupation and dehumanising treatment witnessed during her childhood days, and transforms them into profoundly symbolic 
works of art

By Denise Marray

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Published: Fri 23 Nov 2012, 10:20 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:34 AM

A Palestinian astronaut plants the national flag on the moon and then floats away into space. These sequences, bas-ed on iconic images from the US moon landing and Stanley Kubri-ck’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are at once startling and moving beca-use they express both profound hope and sadness.

The images, from the short film A Space Exodus, are the work of the Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour, whose name made headlines last year when the clothing and accessories company Lacoste forced the withdrawal of her shortlisted photography artwork from a competition being held at L’Élysée Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her work was apparently considered ‘too pro-Palestinian’.

In response to the censorship, the museum broke off relations with Lacoste, the corporate sponsor, and cancelled the competition which carried a first prize of £21,000. The story of the censorship made headlines across the world, and Sansour and her Danish husband found themselves at the centre of a media storm, which proved both uplifting and exhausting. The censored work, Nation Estate, which has since been developed into a futuristic short film, places the Palestinian people in a skyscraper, supported by the international community, with each floor representing a city — Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah. The citizens in this luxury development can move about freely, via elevators (no checkpoints), but it is a sterile environment affording ‘freedom’ within the confines of an 
artificial construct. The skyscraper has views over the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem — so the inhabitants overlook the real Jerusalem, forcing them to face a painful reality of exclusion and separation.

Speaking from her London apartment, Sansour said she and her husband are taking a much-needed rest after completing the film version of Nation Estate, which took nine months of intense work. Ironically, Sansour had wanted to win the Lacoste Nation Estate photography prize. In the event, the publicity that ensued from the ban raised her profile, and she was able to pour the res-ulting profits from sales of her work into financing the high-end production film made in Copenhagen.

Sansour was born in Bethlehem; her parents met in Moscow where her Palestinian father was studying mathematics. Her mother is Russian and worked in radio in Moscow. Upon returning to Palestine, her father was invited by the Vatican to found Bethlehem University. The family home, recalled Sans-our, was like an unofficial embassy, full of leading thinkers and political discussions. As a child, she drew instinctively and her father encouraged her precocious talent by finding her art classes to attend.

She remembers her childhood as ‘sunny’ but punctured by disturbing moments of images of violence on the street. “I think what it does psychologically, and you can’t shake that off, is that you feel that not all humans are equal. As a kid that sends a strong message: ‘You’re Palestinian so you will be treated like dirt.’ It becomes cemented — this dehumanisation — from an early age.”

When she was 15, her family life with parents, brother and sister, was harshly disrupted with the ons-et of the First Intifida, an uprising against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which lasted from December 1987 to 1993. Her parents, in an effort to protect her, sent her to boarding school in England, where she studied for her O and A levels. Her memories of this time, she said, are full of gloomy grey skies and a feeling of alienation. Those years sowed the seeds of an aversion to London, which she has only recently overcome. She now loves the international buzz of the city, with its 
vibrant cultural scene.

After returning to Palestine for high school, she then set off for the United States, studying art first in Baltimore and then in New York, where she completed her Masters. She continued her Fine Art studies in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she met her husband, a writer, who works with her on the film scripts. The couple, who moved to London three years ago, have a five-month-old daughter, whose joyful arrival has meant a shift in priorities.

A Space Exodus was showing at the Edge of Arabia’sCome Together exhibition in the heart of London’s East End last month. Artists from across the Middle East showed contemporary work using a wide range of mediums and expressing powerful ideas.

Edge of Arabia is unique in engaging directly through educational programmes with the local East End community. This approach is appreciated in an area of London where, after years of social deprivation, a burgeoning arts scene has given a new lease of life to the once run-down streets, but left many residents feeling excluded. “We’re proud to be the education partner with Edge of Arabia,” said Narull Islam, co-founder of the Mile End Community Project.

“This is probably the first exhibition that has really engaged with the local community. They have got the young people involved; that’s really refreshing. It gives our young people confidence to meet renowned artists.”

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