During the lead up to this second installment of the Venice Biennale Performance Programme, we are releasing a series of conversations between Aaron Cezar (Delfina Foundation) and the participating artists.
Episode 5 of Delfina Foundation’s Interviews series features artist Vivien Sansour.
Aaron Cezar: You have spent years working with farmers on seed conservation in Palestine and across the world. Where did your interest in agricultural heritage arise from?
Vivien Sansour: It’s hard for me to say exactly when my interest in agriculture arose. Mostly because I don’t think it actually arose; I think it was always there.
I was also born in Palestine in an environment where planting and eating from the land was the only way of life. I did not know anything else, thankfully. My idea of a playground was my grandmother’s terraces and the walnut, pistachio, almond, apricot, and olive trees. So I was made from and marinated in the elements of this nature: soil, sun, air, and fire. Literally fire – one of my best memories is as a child setting my grandmother’s stack of dried weeds on fire and feeling so mischievous and running around with my cousin. It was innocent, natural, and in many ways so privileged because I look at kids today and I feel that while they have many comforts they are missing out on the magic of learning through touch, smell, and unknown explorations in nature – on how to survive and how to own that knowledge even as a kid because you learned what not to eat or what to eat through trying things. That may have sometimes been risky, but you felt the pain and the pleasure of it and now it is part of your embodied knowledge of the earth and life you are part of. You are not separate. You don’t have to live in a boxed room. You are part of a magical planet and a biosphere that is abundant with adventurous and sparkling things and beings. So yeah! I guess my love for agriculture comes from just where I come from and how I grew up and with whom I grew up.
AC: In 2014 you founded the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library. Could you tell us about this initiative?
VS: In the fall of 2014 I started a Ph.D. program in the US in agriculture and life sciences. By that point, I had already been working with farmers for at least 8 years, and I found that being in the university and trying to connect the real-life experience I had had with what I was being pushed to learn didn’t make any sense to me. I felt isolated from the very communities that had actually taught me everything I knew and the many farmers who inspired me. So, one day I decided that I was just going to go home to Palestine and do what I always wanted to do – learn from the people who are doing the work of seed conservation just without giving it fancy titles. They were the women who kept their seeds year after year in old chocolate tin boxes. They were the farmers who plowed their own fields and planted their own little plots without tractors or heavy machinery, literally with their own sweat. So I dropped out and went back and started looking for seeds and old seed stories and giving them contemporary twists.
I am a lover of stories. In many ways, I think I come from a lineage of storytellers. My father is an incredible storyteller. He remembers details and often takes pauses as he speaks and laughs at himself or at the way things were. He does not realize the artistry in his own weaving of words that become tapestry in the listener’s imagination. How is that relevant to the seed library? Well. I am my father’s daughter and I am a sucker for stories. When I would hear stories of a giant watermelon that has disappeared or a carrot that is no longer available I would become obsessed with wanting to touch and see this fantastical world. So the seed library was born from that. It was a desire and a need in me to collect and keep alive elements of my heritage of these fantastical stories. How can a watermelon that is so loved and revered and unforgettable go missing? I just could not bare the idea. So I started looking for seeds and collecting the stories of varieties of seeds that are threatened with extinction or were said to have become extinct. The word got out and I became known as someone who has seeds and so things sort of started from there.
Today the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library is a platform to tell these stories and to keep seeds that are threatened in the fields and on dinner tables. I work with farmers to collectively find ways to bring back these crops, first by finding them and understanding their significance, and then telling their stories so that people would want them again – which is an essential part of their survival as a crop which farmers can benefit from. In the past couple of years we have worked with a variety of wheat called ‘Abu Samra’, which in Arabic means ‘the dark and handsome one’. It has a name that is more “proper”, but I like the colloquial name because it demonstrates how ancient these precious varieties are and how they are imprinted in the memory of those who ate them and thus in our language. Much of the seed conservation work we do is also the work of linguistic conservation and really the revival and assertion of our presence and of who we are in a local and global environment where we are being told in so many ways that who we are and what we have is not pf much worth. Yes, the seed library is about biological conservation of these seeds, but it is also the vessel which we use to say that what our ancestors gave us is of value – of universal value – and that who we are is also of value and that our liberation can only come from this place of knowing that we deserve life, just like every other living being.
AC: Your work is wide-reaching, addressing not just ecology, but also cultural heritage, the welfare of farming communities, and the political situation in which they operate. You started your work locally in Palestine, but in recent years you have conducted projects in many places. What has this expansion brought about for you and those you engage with?
VS: This question is beautiful. It means a lot to me. I have always thought of myself and my work as something of a constant exploration. There is no way that the beauty that is here is not also over there. So I allowed myself to go places I didn’t know and live with different communities. My work is random in many ways. I throw myself into something or somewhere and I surrender to it. I let it guide me. I relinquish all control. So when my work in Palestine started to get more attention I began to look at other places more closely. What can we learn from each other? How are our experiences unique, but how are they also universal? I started exploring the question of “specialness” and I guess I wanted to make sure that we never felt special to the point of forgetting that we are all part of a bigger world. I knew that connecting to others would bring this knowing and this joy but most of all the strength that we are never alone.
I am in a unique position, as person of many worlds, and all the travels and explorations that I had had the fortune of doing in my 20s, but which I wasn’t really able to make sense of at the time, suddenly started to many years later. I had connections to Uruguay where I first went to live on a farm, to South Central farmers in Los Angeles from when I first went to California, also in Italy where I met a farmer working on reviving the old Italian cows and old varieties of wheat, and many more beyond this. Last year, through my connection to a Jamaican friend, I was able to expand my work to the Caribbean, which is something I am very excited about. We are currently working on creating a flower and vegetable farm in the parish of St. Mary in Jamaica where flower production will subsidise vegetable production that will be available for the community. But we also want this place to be somewhere we can grow different seed varieties, including seeds from Seed Share, an initiative started by the late South London Jamaican seed keeper Esiah Levy. Esiah Levy had always wanted to plant his seeds in his homeland and so we are working on making that happen in January, when we will be joined by his mother and other members of his community from London to plant his seeds there as he had wished.
Another collaboration that is close to my heart is one with my home state of California. There a friend who received some seeds from the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library has founded the Oxnard Seed Library and they are growing and cultivating Palestine in varieties, second generation fava beans for example which were recently given to me and are currently on display at the Chicago Architecture Biennial as part of a story of collaborations and farmer to farmer, people to people learning. These stories are not just nice because they feel good. They are urgent because we are in a time in human history where our collaboration and our openness to learn and respect each other’s diversity are essential for our literal and spiritual survival.
AC: Your work has increasingly been presented in contemporary art spaces. Currently, you are presenting work in the Chicago Architecture Biennale. Could you talk about this experience?
VS: Being invited to participate at the Chicago Architecture Biennale has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life so far. When curator Paulo Tavares contacted me I was a bit confused as to why he was interested in my work. I later understood the theme of the 2019 Biennale …And Other Such Stories and became excited to build a model of a seed library where I was able to take a look at changing landscapes. I wanted to highlight stories of people and plants across two terrains that are perhaps different, but share a similar violent and triumphant past. This is how my show Marj and Prairie (‘marj’ is the Arabic word for valley) was born. I wanted to create something in Chicago that related to people of the Midwest and was not just a story of a Palestinian seed library. Both landscapes have been transformed by colonial practices but these oppressive practices while they damaged a lot of our bio-cultural heritage were, and are, always interrupted by the testimonies of plants that survive and tell the stories of people and places.
As we prepared to create the installation I put a call out for someone who had a wood workshop. I was then invited by my friend Timothy Young in northern Michigan to go and build the installation there. I spent two weeks with my co-creator Ayed Arafah in a tent in the forest working with wood that had fallen during a big storm in 2015. All the wood that was used to create the installation was made from fallen trees who gave their lives for us to tell their stories and the stories of other plants such as the seeds of the prairie that now sit in jars on shelves at the Chicago Cultural Center. When people enter the space they are invited to sit on a long table that has several stories and plant and seed specimens. It has been magical because without trying the seeds did what they always do – bring people together who then sit around this interactive table and tell their own stories of childhood flavors and of identities that have often been pushed aside as unimportant or uncivilized.
The show has been a great pleasure to make and is infused with so much love from the people of the Midwest and the spirit of all of those people in Palestine who have inspired this very work. The show was mentioned as the top five must see shows at the biennale. I feel so deeply grateful and honored to also be part of a daring biennale that has brought indigenous issues to the forefront and that has opened with a land acknowledgment, recognizing that the very city we are celebrating in now was built at the expense of communities of plants and people that had co-evolved for millennia and should be honored in no uncertain terms.
AC: What are you planning to present in Venice in November?
VS: I want my performance in Venice to relate to the terrain that we will be standing on. I will be taking the audience on an imaginative exploration through presenting several stories from different moments and communities across the globe which I have encountered and worked with. These include the story of Leno, an Italian farmer from the Po Valley. The stories will be woven together through my own narration with sketched projections which I am working on in collaboration with artist and designer Neville Wisdom.
Vivien Sansour’s participation in the performance programme of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art is supported by Nissreen Darawish. The programme is commissioned by Arts Council England and co-produced by Delfina Foundation and the Biennale as part of Meetings on Art.