We caught up with the Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour, who as we reported on Wednesday is the artist that the French luxury apparel label Lacoste wanted to exclude from the 2011 Lacoste Elysée Prize for being “too pro-Palestinian.” I asked the artist some questions about the controversy and what she thinks this all means.
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Hrag Vartanian: Has Lacoste responded to the controversy since you and the museum have gone public with your statements?
Larissa Sansour: Lacoste issued a statement last (Wednesday) night saying they decided to exclude me solely because my work did not comply with the theme of the competition, La Joie de Vivre. This is not true. At no point prior to last night had any of the administrators of the prize raised this concern. Also, each artist was given complete artistic freedom to relate to this theme, and the administrators at the museum directly encouraged to approach the theme with irony.
Also, has non-compliance with the theme been the real reason for dismissing me, there would have been no reason so attempt to silence me, cover up the story, erase my name from the published list of nominees without any public explanation, no reason for the museum to deeply regret the development and no reason for me to get all wound up about this.
HV: Why do you think Lacoste had a problem with your work?
LS: Well, all I know is what the museum director told me. His words were: although your work is not directly anti-Israeli, it is still too pro-Palestinian for Lacoste to support. Another staff member at the museum later pointed out that Lacoste wanted to remain apolitical and therefore could not accept my project.
HV: What is your concern about corporate sponsorship in the arts? Have you seen other instances where corporate sponsorship has lead to censorship of any kind?
LS: This kind of situation is exactly what I fear. Money ranking over artistic freedom. The fact that a museum initially decides to follow their sponsor’s wish to eliminate an artist is a very scary development, and it is crucial to expose this kind of thing. And I am deeply grateful for all the support from activists, journalists, artists, critics and people all over the world who have voiced their support over the past couple of days.
HV: How would you explain the connect of your work and the theme of la joie de vivre?
LS: For me, the very idea of a Palestinian state makes me happy. The approach my work takes is not particularly optimistic, though. Encouraged by the museum to address the theme ironically, I decided to frame the Palestinian pursuit of happiness in a rather dystopic manner. Throughout the process, the museum has voiced no concerns at all that this is how I chose to approach the theme.
HV: Have you been surprised by the reaction to the controversy at all? If so, in what way?
LS: Over the past two days, there has been a new surprise almost every hour. I am overwhelmed by the reactions this case has caused. I did not expect this, but simply could not accept the censorship of my work and quickly decided that I had to go public with this. And in the end, I am very content that I did. The museum’s decision to break off their partnership with Lacoste is a fine little victory for artistic freedom, I think.
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The Musée de l’Elysée has already proposed exhibiting Sansour’s Nation Estate series as a sign of solidarity with the artist.