Swiss museum cancels competition after prize-sponsor Lacoste rejects Palestinian artist

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Nation Estate  Jerusalem Floor
Photo by Larissa Sansour of her imagined “Jerusalem Floor”

Here is a shocking story that tells us how the world is changing before our eyes. A Swiss museum staging a prestigious international art competition selects a Palestinian artist as one of eight finalists. The sponsor of the prize– the Lacoste clothing company– then demands that she be excluded. The museum wavers and tries to buy the artist off with a solo exhibition separate from the prize.. She refuses.

And the museum cancels the whole competition!

Now let’s go through the events. This morning at 10: 43 AM ET the Washington Post published Lacoste Elysée Prize withdraws nomination of Palestinian photographer

Larissa Sansour thought that her photographic project “Nation Estate,” which imagined a dystopic Palestine, exemplified ‘la joie de vivre,’ the theme of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011. The maker of crocodile-emblemed polo shirts disagreed. Sansour says that Lacoste censored her entry for the competition and withdrew her nomination because her work was too pro-Palestinian.

The Lacoste Elysée Prize is awarded by the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée, and is sponsored by the clothing brand. According to a news release from the artist, when Sansour was nominated, she was given €4,000 (around $5,200) and carte blanche to produce a portfolio of images for the final judging. When she submitted her final project in November, three photos for the ”Nation Estate” project were accepted — but a month later Lacoste decided the work was too political and asked Sansour to withdraw. Her name has been removed from the list of nominees on the prize’s Web site.


As for Sansour, the Musée de l’Elysée has offered to show her photos in a solo exhibition separate from the prize. She declined.

From Larissa Sansour’s website Cairo Taxilogue, her description

Nation Estate Olive Tree

Nation Estate (2012)
Photo and video

The Nation Estate project is a sci-fi photo series conceived in the wake of the Palestinian bid for nationhood at the UN. Three preliminary sketches have been developed especially for the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011 – an award I was nominated for until Lacoste decided to censor my work and revoke my nomination.

Set within a grim piece of hi-tech architecture, this narrative photo series envisions ‘la joie de vivre’ of a Palestinian state rising from the ashes of the peace process.

In this dystopic vision, Palestinians have their state in the form of a single skyscraper: the Nation Estate. Surrounded by a concrete wall, this colossal hi-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – finally living the high life. Each city has its own floor: Jerusalem, third floor; Ramallah, fourth floor. Intercity trips previously marred by checkpoints are now made by elevator.

Aiming for a sense of belonging, the lobby of each floor reenacts iconic squares and landmarks – elevator doors on the Jerusalem floor opening onto a full-scale Dome of the Rock. Built ouside the actual city of Jerusalem, the building also has views of the original golden dome from the top floors.

And now the climax of the story. Shortly after the Washington Post published its story, I received a press release (below) informing “The Musée de l’Elysée has decided to suspend the organisation of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011.”

Suspension of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011

Lausanne, 21 December 2011 – The Musée de l’Elysée has decided to suspend the organisation of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011. Introduced in 2010 to sustain young photographers, the prize is worth 25 000 euros.

In the context of the 2011 edition of the prize, eight nominees were selected to take part in the contest. They were asked to produce three photographs on the theme la joie de vivre. With the help of a individual grant of 4 000 euros, each nominee had carte blanche to interpret the theme in which ever way they favoured, in a direct or indirect manner, with authenticity or irony, based upon their existing or as an entirely new creation. An expert jury should have met at the end of January 2012 to select the winner of the Lacoste Elysée Prize 2011.

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. The Musée de l’Elysée has already proposed to her to present at the museum the series of photographs “Nation Estate”, which she submitted in the framework of the contest.

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.

Sam Stourdzé, Director of the Musée de l’Elysée

Now Lacoste has issued a statement saying that it has withdrawn sponsorship from the prize competition also, “once and for all”; because its sole objection to Sansour was that her anticipated exhibit did not fulfill the “joie de vivre” description of the show.

Incredible. This is an amazing story I hope to see on the silver screen one day about an honorable museum, a coveted prize, an artist with a vision, and the long arm of repression.

I hope Sansour takes up the Musée de l’Elysée offer to show her photos in a solo exhibition and she becomes a madly famous photographer on the world stage.

(Hat Tip Omar Barghouti)

UPDATE: Due to editor Weiss’s error, headline initially said French museum. Thanks to those who corrected us. We fixed it.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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