Middle East Studies
Kareem Estefan

PhD candidate Kareem Estefan travels to Berlin with Middle East Studies Research Travel Award funds

A generous research travel award from the Center for Middle East Studies permitted me to travel to Venice this summer to see the premiere of Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s new body of works, “Heirloom,” which represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale. Sansour’s science-fictional videos and installations comprise a major portion of my dissertation, “Decolonial Visions: Witnessing, Opacity, and Speculation in Contemporary Palestinian Visual Culture,” which asks how Palestinian acts of speculation and fabulation are re-shaping the role of witnessing and testimony to narrate subversive counter-histories in an era of foreclosed political possibility. In her new video, In Vitro, Sansour allegorically re-imagines Palestinian history by envisioning an environmental catastrophe in Bethlehem that kills off a generation of the city’s inhabitants, forces survivors into an underground bunker, and leads the population to clone cyborg children with the memories of the catastrophe and the desire to return to their homes. Not only did I benefit from the rare chance to see this work in its extraordinary context—Palestinians are excluded from the array of national pavilions at this elite cultural event, insofar as Palestine is not recognized as a state, yet Sansour’s Danish citizenship allowed her to exhibit her art in a prime location directly facing the pavilions of the United States and Israel—but I also met the artist and her partner and collaborator Soren Lind, spoke at length with the curator, Nat Muller, and arranged for future interviews with them (as the biennale opening proved too busy to conduct these interviews during this time).

Since visiting the exhibition in Venice, I have written substantial portions of a dissertation chapter on Sansour’s work, tentatively titled “Permission to Fabulate,” in tribute to Edward Said’s landmark essay. I presented a draft excerpt at a documentary and film studies conference at the University of Southern California in July. So I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with Sansour’s new work to inform this writing, and as an impetus to think about it carefully and differently ahead of an important conference. I have also prepared numerous interview questions for Sansour and still plan to speak with her, when she is available, about the methodologies and themes of her videos, their relation to Palestinian history, and what it means for a Palestinian to represent Denmark in the world’s most prominent contemporary art biennial. Even though her schedule has proved tight, I am confident that having met her in person, through a curator that speaks well of my work, I will have the opportunity to interview her soon. I am immensely grateful to Middle East Studies for making this encounter possible.