A young girl sits on an intricately patterned tile floor. The room is empty, save for an open wooden box with its lid, and what appears to be a few writing utensils strewn out on the ground. The girl closes her eyes as shimmering rays of light emanate from two arched windows into the darkened space. She seems to be in a momentary state of bliss in this sentimental, yet powerful image.
The room is in Bethlehem, and according to artist Larissa Sansour, an apocalyptic disaster has just taken place. If it weren’t for the artist’s explanation, its location would have been as obscured as the bleak walls of the little girl’s room. Still, the otherworldly space with its beams of light pouring through offers a poignant reminder that even amidst destruction, there are slivers of hope.
A new body of 15 conceptual photographic works comprises AFTER, Sansour’s third solo exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi. Revolving around the themes of trauma, exile, and collective and individual memory, many of the works on display are stills from the artist’s two-channel film In Vitro, commissioned for the Danish Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale and directed by Søren Lind.
Sansour’s sci-fi film is staged in the town of Bethlehem decades after an eco-disaster, one that has nearly obliterated the city.Under the biblical town, a vast bunker has been converted into an orchard using heirloom seeds collected in the final days before the disaster. Two female scientists—the orchard’s dying 70-year-old founder and her 30-year-old successor, who turns out to be a clone of the founder’s daughter who died in the apocalypse—discuss the future of the town they are planning to rebuild above ground. The younger scientist was born underground and unlike the elderly scientist, has never experienced the town above ground. She does not share the same memories as the elderly scientist. A challenging discussion between the two then ensues regarding the necessity of memory in reconstructing a site of the past in order to move forward into the future. “The film and the photography leaves the viewer with questions to answer,” says Sansour. “Questions so relevant in today’s world: Do you need to take away someone’s memory—someone’s past—someone’s trauma in order to start a new life?”
Regardless of the viewer’s knowledge of the film and its narrative, the photographic works in this exhibition have their own individual stories. Conceptual in subject matter and rendering, each offers haunting, otherworldly glimpses into an unknown time and space. “The show is more like images in a children’s book,” adds Sansour. “You read the book so many times but you always feel there is a bigger story to it—at least that’s how I felt when I read stories as a kid.” In one image, a nun in her black and white habit wears a gas mask alluding to the scene of a disaster. Her white cross dangles proudly from her neck. “[Each image] makes you more interested in the absence of that bigger story,” adds Sansour. “We tried to be selective in choosing stills from the film that could stand on their own or create that feeling of wanting to know more.” In another photograph, a young girl helps another put on her white headdress. They are outside in an orchard surrounded by olive trees, and on the ground is a white sheet and two wicker baskets, remnants from a recent picnic. Other scenes capture deserted spaces, former belongings and old alleyways and buildings in Bethlehem—remains of the past that form the collective memory of those who were able to experience such objects and spaces above ground. In other works, two perspectives merge together in unison offering an intense portrayal of the disaster and how it has shaped present history. “I tried to keep the same format as the film where you have two split screens and a dividing line so as to keep the same cinematic feeling,” explains Sansour. The black and white rendering of the images causes each to be devoid of a specific time and place thus leading the viewer to question and probe the larger narrative of each scene.
The city of Bethlehem provides a politically charged and also nostalgic backdrop to each photograph. The sites Sansour has captured refer not only to the childhood memories of the elderly scientist who was able to experience life above ground, but also of an entire generation of Palestinians today who continue to wrestle with their own collective memory, as the present and future of their land remains in a continuous state of uncertainty.
“In this period of rising populism and nationalism and the crisis of capitalism and climate change, all of our vocabulary is still stuck in the past and I am not sure how helpful that will be as we move forward,” she says. Sansour’s poignant renderings offer simultaneous stabs of pain and beauty, and they lead us to question the importance of memory. What is the future made of? Is it made of the past or something else? How much of the past, particularly a past filled with trauma, do we need to take with us in order to move forward? AFTER and In Vitro are symbolic of today’s world. Identity politics are at the forefront of nearly every socio-economic and political discussion. Why? Perhaps as Sansour is relaying through these works, we have yet to overcome and transcend our own trauma. The past remains in our mind even if it is triggered by the architectural structures inherent in our present reality. “The crisis regarding climate change brings up important questions,” says Sansour. “Will our memories mean anything if we are confronted with annihilation of the human race? What elements do we need to keep with us in order to survive?”
About Rebecca Anne Proctor:
Rebecca Anne Proctor is the Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she has held since 2015. She has written prolifically for publications including The New York Times Style Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Canvas, Artnet News, Frieze, BBC, Galerie, The National and The Business of Fashion, as well as written several art catalogues on Middle Eastern art and culture.