When archaeology is manipulated for political ends
London - Larissa Sansour’s first solo London exhibition — In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain — is a surreal reflection on the politicisation of archaeology in contemporary Israel and the Palestinian territories where the material past is used to justify territorial claims and fabricate historic entitlement.
It is an exhibition in three parts, ideally suited to London’s Mosaic Rooms. Visitors begin the journey into the crossover between the fictional and the factual in a small gallery with three large-format photographs in which figures from the past blend with characters from the future.
A 29-minute, science fiction film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain, is shown in the large gallery opposite and the downstairs gallery is used for object-based installations.
The photographs are derived from the film. They feature archival images from the US Library of Congress and UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to create pan-historical images of private individuals and representatives from various occupying forces in the Palestinian territories from the time of the Ottomans through the British Mandate and the present era under Israel.
“The new body of work presented at the Mosaic Rooms is inspired by the archaeological warfare taking place in Israel/Palestine,” said Sansour, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian screenwriter.
“In the absence of a meaningful peace process, archaeology has long since become the battleground for settling territorial disputes. This topic started intriguing me about four years ago, just as I became increasingly interested in the impact of fiction, narrative and myth on nation-building and history writing. I spent a while researching these concepts before deciding that developing this idea in a fictional setting would be the best way to embellish the topics at hand.”
The result is a film that tells the story of a resistance group devoting their lives to challenging the colonialist/nationalist narrative of their rulers.
“Support for this narrative, which is partly based on folklore, myth and fiction, relies on archaeological evidence,” Sansour said. “So my resistance group set out to create a counter-narrative based on the exact same components and decides to make underground deposits of elaborate porcelain. Their aim is to influence history and support future claims to their vanishing lands. By implementing a myth of its own, their work becomes a historical intervention — de facto creating a nation.”
“The film takes the form of a fictional video essay. A voice-over based on an interview between a psychiatrist and the female leader of the narrative resistance group reveals the philosophy and ideas behind the group’s actions,” she said.
“The leader’s thoughts on myth and fiction as constitutive for fact; history and documentary translate into poetic and science fiction-based visuals. The film resides in the cross-section between sci-fi, archaeology and politics. In essence, it explores the role of myth for history, fact and national identity.”
As the film progresses, the narrative and visuals alternate between the theoretical and the personal. The resistance leader’s deceased twin sister makes a crucial appearance as the story takes the viewer deeper and deeper into the resistance leader’s subconscious.
“Time’s ability to distort often ends up conflating shared and personal memories,” the resistance leader says. “In my memory the image of my sister and me together has been replaced by a famous archival photo of two girls in folkloric dresses. Everyone here knows this photo. Yet my mind has annexed these girls as if to remind me that the distinction between the personal and the public has long since been erased.”
In the Revisionist Production Line installation, porcelain plates printed with the keffiyeh symbol are mass produced. The Archaeology in Absentia installation features a series of exquisitely crafted bronze bombs. Inside each is a metal disc inscribed with coordinates referring to a site in Israel or the Palestinian territories where Sansour recently buried porcelain.
Sansour said “archaeological warfare” is taking place in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where archaeology has long since become a method for settling land disputes and the discipline has long since lost its innocence as a sub-branch of historical studies.
“Archaeological finds are used in support of the colonialist narrative and this narrative lends weight to the ideas of continued presence and historical entitlement,” she said. “In practical terms, this means that a narrative shaped partly by myth and fiction and then supported by a perverted form of archaeology outdoes any legal claims and international rights, fiction wins over fact any day.”
Sansour emphasised that this point is important when trying to understand the situation and the opposing forces not only in Israel and the Palestinian territories but universally. “The stronger narrative has a bigger chance of beating all competition regardless of whether it is based on truth or fiction,” she said.
Sansour said that it is impossible for an engaged artist to not relate to the context they find themselves in, adding: “I do think that art is a highly malleable discipline that offers a new dimension for political discourse unrestrained by present day political rhetoric.”