In 2011, artist Larissa Sansour was taken off the shortlist for the Lacoste Art Prize, for working on a project that was deemed 'too pro-Palestinian'. The backlash on the organisers was swift and Sansour gained an international following, with her voice heard around the world. This year, she's back with a new body of work...
What is the inspiration behind your latest project, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain?
This project is a sci-fi film, delving into the current Palestinian issue. In the film, the main character is a rebel leader who's trying to change the course of history and it's very much a film about mythology and how it gets embedded in historical narratives. The original premise though was supposed to be a performance-based piece where we take these fine and expensive porcelain pieces — about 500 of them — and just bury them somewhere in an undisclosed place in Palestine. It's the idea of a culture being buried, even if it is of the highest quality. But that idea evolved throughout the course of production.
I think part of what I do is to break power roles, especially with regards to Palestine. In the realm of fiction, anybody can claim the same space and you can choose what you want to be associated with. I think it's that flipping of power roles that is at the heart of my work as well.
Your previous works see you on film but silent, whereas in this one, you're off camera, but narrating at length. Does the change make it easier to get your message across?
Maybe but I've heard from several people that the film is interesting in the fact that it's quite multi-layered. It's hard to get it all in one seating so you need to watch it several times. Interestingly, there were 17 different scripts and this final edit is the simplest version. When you're addressing something as complicated as what's happening in the region, in order for you to say something meaningful or interesting, there has to be a more layered way of talking about it. It cannot be any simpler than that.
So far your works have all been politically-charged. Do you see yourself breaking away from the topic altogether at some point?
It might be more universal but I think art has always been political. In fact, I don't know of any successful art that has not been political. Even the abstract Russian constructivism was a political movement, though we often just think about it in different and more simpler terms. Even an autonomous movement like the modernist movement is a political movement at heart. It's very difficult to disengage art from its political context, and what makes an art piece potent is the fact that it kind of feeds from its context. When you start thinking that you can work in a vacuum, that is when you start losing engagement with the rest of the world.
Are you comfortable with the fact that your works elicit different interpretations or would you rather viewers share the same views that you have?
I think you do art because it's a way of communicating with the world; it's a dance that takes more than just yourself to make happen. Even when I do the work I have the audience in mind and in order for a work to be successful, you have to understand that it needs to have multiple interpretations.
How do you see the current arts scene in the Middle East? Do you think there is a need to move away from the arts of culture and heritage and move towards something more contemporary?
It depends on how you do it. I think it's more important to be a revisionist. It's inherent in art to question what's going on, what has been done and whether there is a new way of presenting the problem, even if it's the same problem.
To me, what's happening with art in the Middle East is quite spectacular and I really love going to Middle Eastern art shows because the work is very engaged. When you starve people, you get something much more valuable out of them, compare to places where people live in comfort and no longer have anything to say. You can feel the urgency and the strength of the work because it's real and not just because it's trendy.
How varied has the reception been towards your works, given its content and context?
I think there is a lack of understanding as well as an expectation for artists in the Middle East to produce a certain type of work. What people find unusual about my work is the fact that they're pristine, slick and very costly. I even had curators in Europe who say that they want to include my work but they're too 'well done' to be included in their Middle Eastern show. It's sometimes shocking just how much people need clichés to work with.
What are your upcoming projects?
I'm going to take it easy for a while because it took two years to complete this last project. I have some ideas at the moment but I don't want to be too inspired right now because it's too much work.
In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain runs from January 18 - March 3, 2016 at the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai.