Lampedusa in the eye of contemporary art

The dehumanization of migrants is made hyper-visible in media images. F. Mazzara proposes to resist it by exploring the approaches of artists and activists undertaken on the island of Lampedusa and its surroundings.

Review published in partnership with De factoreview of the Convergences Migrations Institute.

Over the past twenty years, more than 20,000 people have drowned in the Strait of Sicily. October 2013 marked a turning point in the media coverage of this tragedy. It coincided with the disappearance of 368 Eritreans off the coast of Lampedusa and the beginning of the spectacularization of deaths in the Mediterranean that anthropologist Nicholas De Genova (2015) has called the “Border Spectacle.” The recent book by Federica Mazzara, a specialist in intercultural communication at the University of Westminster, takes the heat out of the debate by placing it in the perspective of this small Italian island and examining the strategies invented by activists and artists to counter the dominant sensationalism. For Mazzara, it is the one that is carried by “the imagery relating to water, drownings, floating and washed-up corpses, and, of course, overloaded and unusable wooden or inflatable boats that have saturated the minds of spectators exposed to the spectacle of the border maintained by the media” (p. 16).

The object of Reframing Migration. Lampedusa, Border Spectacle and Aesthetics of Subversion is timely, because it goes beyond the criticisms generally leveled at media coverage of the “crisis” to present alternative visual approaches. In the form of a material extension of her book, the author has made these works visible by organizing the exhibition Sink Without a Trace (Sink Without a Trace) with artist Maya Ramsay at London’s P21 Gallery.

A schizophrenic island

In the opening, Mazzara paints a striking portrait of Lampedusa. A tiny portion of the European Union off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts, daily life on the island unfolds in a schizophrenic fashion, between the activities of a peaceful resort for tourists and those of a penal colony for passing migrants. . By focusing on the field work carried out since 2009 by the Askavusa collective to resist the process of militarization of the island, she scratches the position of humanitarians who, despite their opposition to the dominant discourse, fuel it through their use of the same images victimizing. Mazzara focuses in particular on the commemorations of the tragedy of October 3, 2013 organized annually by local authorities. These constitute a revealing moment in the deployment of the spectacle of the border. In 2014, to commemorate the first year, Italian institutions put on a compassionate show under the cameras of the RAI TV attended by Pope Francis, several celebrities, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, and the coast guard team. During the parade and official speeches, no mention was made of the negligence of the authorities who did not respond to the distress call made by a ship located 500 meters from the shore. Nor were the real rescuers invited to the ceremony, who unsuccessfully questioned the responsibility of the coast guard in the disaster. The funeral organized the day after the tragedy was also an opportunity for overplayed pity from the authorities. Meron Estefanos and Father Mussie Zerai, two Eritreans who helped the victims’ families after the shipwreck and whose words were carried by Askavusa, see in these funerals a “trick arranged to suit the politicians.” They told the group that no survivors were allowed to attend the ceremony, while Zemede Tekle, Eritrea’s ambassador to Italy whose regime drove the victims out, was received with pomp, only adding to the families’ grief.

Based on the analysis of the processes of “visibilization” and “invisibilization” formulated by the philosopher Jacques Rancière (2008; 106), Mazzara therefore strives to reformulate the spectacle of the border by providing a platform for counter-discourse. To do this, she devotes a large part of her study to the examination of various artistic approaches brought together in the notion of “aesthetics of subversion”. The works that she brings together under this name aim to overturn the stereotypical and “objectivizing” representations disseminated by the mainstream media. Mazzara also borrows the notion of “migratory aesthetics” from the Dutch artist and theorist Mieke Bal (2007), to designate this field of contemporary artistic production.

Panorama of migratory aesthetics

Without making a distinction between “aesthetics of subversion” and “migratory aesthetics”, the academic devotes most of the work to the panorama of the productions that she exhibited at the P21 gallery. She proposes a typology, essentially repeated in the chapter of the book, which categorizes these works into several headings such as “Thwarting the journey”, “Counter-commemoration” and “Counter-narratives”. The chapters are thematic compilations, such as “The art of recycling migrants’ leftovers”. A large development is also devoted to works which seek to prevent the anonymity of the missing in the Mediterranean. The effort to describe this aesthetic field is to Mazzara’s credit and the classification she makes pertinently brings together works using similar themes or processes. However, with the exception of the star artist Ai Weiwei, we regret that the corpus is essentially limited to the works exhibited by the author herself without putting them in dialogue with other recent works which take up processes or similar themes.

As an example, Mazzara cites the cyanotype process as experimented by Slovak artist Tamara Kametani. According to the specificity of this photographic process, in the absence of fixative, the images gradually disappear in daylight to give way to blue monochromes reminiscent of the color of the sea.

Tamara Kametani, Half a mile from Lampedusa
Cyanotype on paper, 2017

The visual artist Émeric Lhuisset also explored it in the photographic series The Other Shore. The 43 cyanotypes that make up the series were taken from Iraq and Syria, the countries of departure of the exiles, to their destination countries in Germany, Denmark and France. The series was the subject of a monograph published in 2017 by André Frères and numerous exhibitions, notably at the Brighton Photography Biennial. Lhuisset dedicated the series to his friend Foad, who drowned in the Mediterranean.

Meric Lhuisset, The other shore
Cyanotype on paper

As for thematic groupings, the body of the exhibition could have been put into perspective with other contemporary works dealing with similar subjects. One might think, for example, of the large installation by the Colombian artist Erika Diettes, Relicaries (Reliquaries), which could also have been mentioned transversally for the way in which it commemorates the deceased (the “counter-commemoration”) by magnifying everyday objects that belonged to them (“the art of recycling remains”).

Erica Diettes, Relicarios
Installation, 2016 – Photo Eliana Medina

In terms of recycling, Mazzara therefore returns to the creations of Ai Weiwei who frequently reused the life jackets abandoned by survivors in monumental works such as the wrapping of the columns of the Konzerthaus in Berlin on the occasion of the 66e edition of the international film festival. Seeing them more as ornamental than subversive productions, Mazzara observes that they simply reiterate the sensationalism of media images and reinforce the “spectacle of statistics” already conveyed by governments. The expression refers to that of “spectacle of the border” borrowed from De Genova. Although she uses the expression in the title of the work, the author is content with the definition cited above (p. 16), taken up without further elaboration and in an almost identical manner on page 195. However, some works in the corpus of “the aesthetics of subversion” use precisely as support remains of “wooden boats (…) which have saturated the minds of the spectators”, bodies, for example Leave or Remain by Maya Ramsay or Distant Neighbors-T06114 by Lucy Wood.

However, Mazzara is interested in artistic projects that give voice and faces to migrants. She cites in particular the film Exodus directed in 2016 by James Bluemel. This documentary is made up of a series of captivating testimonies, filmed by migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan using simple mobile phones during their journey to Europe. Mazzara draws an analogy between Exodus and acts of emancipation of exiles who, in 2009, 2011 and 2016, protested within the detention centers of Lampedusa against the inhumane conditions of imprisonment to which they were subjected. As an extension of these “acts of citizenship”, the researcher evokes the new scale of struggle imagined by her London colleagues at Goldsmith University through the Forensic Oceanography group. Since 2011, Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, the founding members, have taken a “disobedient look” at human rights violations committed by the member states of the Schengen area in the Mediterranean. They launched the online mapping platform Watch the Med which locates the search areas where migrants cross and for which the authorities are responsible.

As we can see, in the area of ​​migration, the line between academic research, artistic creation and activism is thin. Also, a few lines could have been devoted to the ethical questions raised by artistic acts that undertake to offer a commemoration to missing persons.

Despite these few reservations, Federica Mazzara’s work constitutes an excellent introduction to the various artistic approaches which strive to renew the too restricted visual field served by the media. The diversity of the works studied and the rich bibliography with which the work is accompanied constitute all avenues for extending one’s reflection. To the extent that these dominant images influence the construction of both mental and physical boundaries, the book opens a beneficial window to regenerate our numbed imaginations.