French luxury goods firm Lacoste last night dramatically terminated its sponsorship of a £21,000 photography prize after it was accused of attempting to censor the work of a London-based Palestinian artist.
The company made its announcement minutes after the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, which was administering the award, had issued a statement appearing to distance itself from a decision to remove Bethlehem-born artist Larissa Sansour from the prize shortlist.
The museum and Lacoste faced claims on Monday of attempting to censor art after Ms Sansour, who has exhibited at the Tate Modern, had her status as one of eight nominees for a 25,000 euro (£21,000) award sponsored by the French company revoked last week.
Ms Sansour, 38, who has received critical acclaim for her body of work tackling the issues facing Palestinians, told The Independent that she had been told by senior staff at the museum that the reason for her removal from the shortlist was allegedly because her work was considered by Lacoste to be “too pro-Palestinian”.
Both the museum and Lacoste, which has sponsored the prize for two years, yesterday denied that this was the reason for the decision to remove the artist, insisting it was because her work - entitled Nation Estate - did not fit with the theme for this year’s award, which was “joie de vivre”.
But in a volte face last night, the museum announced it was suspending the prize, whose terms state that each nominee is given “carte blanche to interpret the theme in whichever way they favoured, in a direct or indirect manner, with authenticity or irony”.
In a statement, the museum said: “The Musee de l’Elysee has based its decision on the private partner’s wish to exclude Larissa Sansour. We reaffirm our support to [her] for the artistic quality of her work and her dedication... For 25 years, the Musee de l’Elysee has defended with strength artists, their work, freedom of the arts and of speech. With the decision it has taken today, the Musee de l’Elysee repeats its commitment to its fundamental values.”
Shortly after the museum's statement, Lacoste last night strongly rejected criticism of its actions and said it was ending its involvement with the prize with immediate effect.
In a statement, the company said: " Lacoste's reputation is at stake for false reasons and wrongful allegations. Never, was Lacoste’s intention to exclude any work on political grounds. The brand would not have otherwise agreed to the selection of Ms. Sansour in the first place."
It added: "In light of this situation and to avoid any misunderstanding, Lacoste has decided to cancel once and for all its participation in this event and its support to the Elysée Prize."
Last night, Ms Sansour’s husband, Soren Lind said: “She is delighted that the museum has now decided to side with the artist rather than the corporation.” Earlier this week Ms Sansour had criticised the decision to remove her from the shortlist, accusing Lacoste of “ apparent prejudice and censorship”.
The apparent rupture between the museum and Lacoste was announced after the publication by The Independent of an email in which the gallery sought to limit the damage caused by the removal of Ms Sansour’s nomination by offering her the chance of a separate exhibition at a future date, an offer it last night reaffirmed.
In the email, the museum appears to seek to limit the damage caused by the removal of Ms Sansour’s nomination by offering her the chance of a separate exhibition at a future date. The museum also asked Ms Sansour to issue a statement saying that she had “decided to pursue other opportunities”.
The email, sent last Wednesday by the museum’s head of external affairs, said: “Regarding your project for the Lacoste Elysée Prize, please know that I am sorry about the decision which was taken by Lacoste, as we all defended your work... It is now important that we agree on a common message that Lacoste and the Musée de l’Elysée will communicate to the other photographers, the jury members and the press if necessary.... I suggest that we use the following expression: ‘Larissa Sansour decided to pursue other opportunities.’”
The photographer, whose body of work has frequently addressed issues facing Palestinians, had produced a series of three pictures for her entry, which offered a science fiction representation of a Palestinian state housed in a skyscraper. She was one of eight nominated artists from countries including France, Ireland, Russian and Denmark.
Ms Sansour, who lives in central London, claimed that in a phone call last week the museum had told her that Lacoste had decided the trio of photographs was “too pro-Palestinian”. In subsequent conversations, she was allegedly told that Lacoste, famed for its polo shirts bearing the firm's green crocodile logo, was concerned that the prize should be non-political.
The Musée de l’Elysée is also claimed to have also arranged for her project to be withdrawn from an article in the prestigious ArtReview magazine introducing the artists shortlisted for the prize.
But in a joint statement issued on Tuesday night, the museum and Lacoste denied the reason for the change to the shortlist was political. The statement said: The statement said: “Larissa Sansour’s photographic project Nation Estate was removed from the Lacoste Elysée Prize only because it didn’t correspond to the theme of the 2011 edition, i.e. joie de vivre. We regret the political interpretation of our decision.”