'Reframing the debate: The art of Lampedusa', article by Maya Ramsay

'Reframing the debate: The art of Lampedusa', article by Maya Ramsay

Countless, image of migrant's grave, 2016, Maya Ramsay


Maya Ramsay

Article first published in Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, Volume 7, Issue 2, Oct 2016



This article considers the art that has been produced in relation to the subject of migrant deaths at sea, with a focus on artworks that refer to the island of Lampedusa and its more than twenty year history of the subject. Now that the world’s media are at last paying attention to the subject of migrant deaths, islands such as Lampedusa and Lesbos are in danger of being ‘invaded’ by more than just migrants – artists are on their way in ever-increasing numbers. The ‘migration crisis’ has become the latest hot topic for artists, but art on the subject of migrant deaths at sea is often controversial, dividing both critics and audiences. Written from the perspective of an artist, this article explores the complexities of making and presenting art about this extremely sensitive issue. 

Through looking at artworks that have been made by Lampedusans, by migrants themselves and by international artists, this article outlines the extremely important role that art has in relation to the subject. Art can offer alternative perspectives to those that are presented by politicians and by the media, enabling viewers to see beyond the rhetoric and statistics and to question and dwell on very difficult realities.

Submerged 46 feet beneath the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Lampedusa, stands a stone statue of the Madonna, clutching her child to her chest. The heads of both mother and child are tilted expectantly upwards towards the ocean’s surface, as if waiting. Installed in 1975, long before the influx of migrants to Lampedusa, the underwater statue of the Madonna de Mare was a gift to the island from a tourist rescued in a diving accident. While not intended as an artwork about migrant deaths at sea, the statue could be interpreted as a poignant memorial on the subject. Instead, it is a tourist attraction for the many divers who flock to explore the island’s waters, said to be one of the ten clearest waters in the world.


Figure 1: Porta d’Europa, Mimmo Paladino, 2008 ©.


One of the earliest artworks on the subject is Porta d’Europa (Door to Europe) by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino (Figure 1). A large ceramic gateway stands on a cliff near Lampedusa’s port, overlooking the sea. Installed in 2008, under the auspices of the UNHCR, this open portal symbolizes both a warm welcome towards migrants and a modern day ‘Door of No Return’(1). With its enticing golden surface Porta d’Europa combines both beauty and horror. At the top of the gateway are a series of jumbled numbers, ‘98357345’-, referring to the unknown numbers of migrant deaths. Heads, hands, shoes and broken bowls project from the sculpture, like archaeological finds unearthed from the seabed. Perhaps the least contentious of the artworks discussed in this article, Porta d’Europa functions as a memorial on the island, a place for people to gather and to reflect on the subject – as the doors to Europe close ever tighter.

  1. (1). ‘Door of No Return’ is a phrase used to describe the moment that stripped and branded Africans were forced through the doors of slave forts onto waiting slave ships, towards unknown fates.


Figure 2: Isaac Julien, WESTERN UNION: Small Boats (2007), image courtesy of the artist ©.


A year before Paladino’s sculpture was installed, British Caribbean artist Isaac Julien made WESTERN UNION: Small Boats (2007) (Fig. 2). This film installation is part of a trilogy of films entitled ‘Expeditions’ that focus on the journeys of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. 

Julien is known for the lavish beauty of his film-making, and WESTERN UNION: Small Boats is no exception. The film is set in the Sicilian city of Agrigento and the opulent Palazzo Gangi in Palermo. It also features footage of the ‘boat graveyard’ in Lampedusa, where migrant boats are piled up before being destroyed. Projected onto three screens, Julien’s film immerses the viewer in a non-linear assemblage of image and sound, with dancers playing the role of migrants. Submerged in water, the dancers simulate the struggle to stay alive. Some of the footage is reversed so that their bodies appear to be being sucked down towards the seabed. A black man carries a white man over his shoulders, limp like a corpse – a role reversal of the usual image of the white man as ‘hero’ rescuing black bodies. Tourists cavort in the sea while the camera focuses on clothing floating in the water and dead bodies wrapped in emergency blankets lying along the shore. 

Critics are divided over the juxtaposition of beauty and horror in the film. In ‘Disaster Team’, Ben Davis writes: 


At a certain, rarefied level […] employing the palazzo is some kind of statement about the old European boundaries crumbling before the pressure of the new global order. But it is an oblique statement at best, buried under several layers of intellectual mud […] a work exploring ongoing events that have been dubbed the ‘Sicilian Holocaust’ might be an awkward time to dabble willy-nilly in the world of abstract dance. (2007)


Alan Gilbert comments in ‘Isaac Julien: Metro Pictures’ that 


The work derives its structure from a series of fragmented and stylised tableaux– so stylized in fact that certain moments approximate a fashion shoot, lending what is a gritty, harrowing and sometimes fatal journey a slightly incongruous quality of slick sensuality. (2008)


In ‘Sea dreams: Isaac Julien’s Western Union: Small Boats’ Jennifer A. Gonzalez argues that the work:


Speaks to a newer media-saturated environment where all kinds of violence appear aestheticised and normalised. It is precisely this normalisation of violence that may function to mask the real world violence of international politics. By producing a nearly sculptural, excessive representation of the drowning body, the choreography of the dancers invites us to glimpse a violence we can only otherwise distantly imagine. (2010: 127)

Perhaps most importantly, the film addresses the politics of migration through the context of slavery and race, with contemporary migration seen as a form of modern day slavery - an issue that is not discussed enough, either in the arts or elsewhere. Julien’s film also pays homage to Luchino Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963), which was also set in the beautiful Palazzo and is an adaptation of a novel about the decline of Sicilian aristocracy by Prince Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa. Julien describes his film as ‘a conversation about that architecture and how it might be repositioned in talking about these new journeys’ (Spike Channel Islands 2007).

Sadly the film is not available online or on DVD and can only be seen on the very rare occassion that the artist's gallery chooses to exhibit it, or, if you can afford to buy a limited edition for many thousands of pounds. Surely art on the subject of migrant deaths at sea should be available for all to see?                                              

Dagmawi Yimer is an Ethiopian migrant who arrived on Lampedusa, settled in Italy and co-founded The Archive of Migrant Memories (AMM) which produces written and audio-visual narratives made by migrants about their experiences. AMM enables migrants to participate directly in the dissemination of their own stories and testimonies, rather than having them told by outsiders.                                           Yimer’s seventeen-minute animation film ASMAT Names in memory of all sea victims (Yimer, 2013) is a poignant and hypnotic tribute to the 368 lives lost at sea off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 – the tragedy that prompted the Italian Navy to launch the Mare Nostrum Sea and Rescue mission. ASMAT alternates between animation and filmed footage, opening with the sound of a woman singing mournfully in Tigrinya over an animation of the sea. Suddenly we see a confusing world of water with glimpses of the hull of an upturned boat. The woman narrates: ‘we existed before October 3rd, we have been sailing for years […] bodies without names [...] names without bodies [...] we are more visible dead than alive...we have been drowning for years’. (Yimer, 2013)

Very unusually for such tragedies, it was possible to identify almost all of the deceased. For ten long minutes the names of the 368 people who died float seemingly endlessly across the screen as they are recited with their translation – Selam (Peace), Tesfaye (My hope)… This painfully repetitive aspect of the film is exactly its strength – migrant deaths at sea are painfully repetitive. 

In one of the many documentary films produced by AMM, To Whom it May Concern (Mohamed Ali, 2013), Somali journalist Zakaria Mohamed Ali describes the process of dehumanization that migrants are subjected to after arriving on the island of Lampedusa, as he himself experienced in 2008. The film follows Ali as he returns to the island to search in vain for his documents, certificates and diplomas that were confiscated and destroyed by the authorities – assuring that he would have little chance of a successful future: ‘I told them, I don’t want to lose these things, they’re valuable. And that really is violence – it’s the violence of losing one’s memory’ (Mohamed Ali, 2013).


Figure 3: Giacomo Sferlazzo, Il santuario della Madonna di Porto Salvo, 2011, image courtesy of the artist ©. 


Askavusa (meaning ‘Barefoot’ in Sicilian) is a collective of activists, scholars and artists based on the island who in 2009 began gathering the migrants’ belongings that were discarded by the authorities or washed up on the island's beaches – shoes, toys, prayer books, photographs of loved ones and letters often found carefully stitched inside layers of clothing. The group collected these remnants of lost lives for 5 years and now display them in Porto M – a small independent space whose exterior is covered in timber from the migrant boats. The collection currently holds around one thousand objects, as well as three salvaged migrant boats. Giacomo Sferlazzo, one of Askavusa’s founding members, has been creating artworks from some of the migrants’ belongings since 2005. One example, Il santuario della Madonna di Porto Salvo (2011), is an assemblage of boat timber, sacred texts, a shoe and other found  objects (Figure 3). Sferlazzo explains:


For me it was natural to use the boats’ wood, the sacred texts and other objects to create works, I wanted to give back to the world a voice choked from the past, but I wanted to give it back forcefully, looking for the beauty, looking for the form. (2013)


What does it mean to look for beauty and form in objects that have come from such trauma? As Gonzalez said of Isaac Julien’s film ‘To make something beautiful of our human relations that are truly ugly, how is this a politically progressive gesture?’ (2010: 127). We know from Auschwitz and Hiroshima the inherent and profound power that such objects can hold – without being transformed into art. The Hiroshima schoolchildren’s molten lunch boxes and the wristwatches stopped forever at 8.15a.m. say more than any artwork on the subject ever could. In ‘The details of Hiroshima’ Roland Kelts writes:


The power of images can be subverted by proliferation and reach. The mushroom cloud and the skeletal Hiroshima dome are the two most recognisable images of Hiroshima, which remains a profound and endless human tragedy. But who really sees them? (2013)


Similarly, who really sees the endless media images of migrants’ bodies packed into boats and migrants’ bodies packed into body bags? Many people will choose not to linger over these images of horror. However, the migrants’ everyday belongings allow us to dwell on the subject and imagine the stories behind them, enabling migrants to be seen as individuals, rather than as bodies and numbers. 

There are complex ethical issues involved in making art from such objects and in publicly displaying the objects. They may be all that remain of people who have not been found or whose bodies are otherwise unidentifiable, as drowned bodies often are. They may have belonged to people whose family do not know what happened to them and who are unlikely to have a gravestone to visit. Yet, if the objects are not collected and appropriated they will be destroyed by the authorities.































Figure 4: Lucy Wood, TO6411 in Lampedusa (2013), image courtesy of the artist ©.


Over the course of three years, British artist Lucy Wood regularly travelled to Lampedusa to collect and document migrant experiences through found objects, photography and interviews. She spent nine months living on the island, preparing for her project entitled TO6411, in which she asked the island authorities whether she could have a rescued migrant boat, with the intention of sailing it from Lampedusa to London. After two years of persistence Wood was eventually offered boat TO6411 (Figure 4). The boat is named after the official code given to it by Italian customs when it was seized close to Lampedusa in 2012 with 36 North African migrants on board. After restoring the boat and taking a short navigation course, Wood set sail on a 4000-mile solo voyage from Lampedusa, arriving in London nearly four months later. Before setting sail, Wood wrote to the Pope asking him to bless her boat, which he agreed to do (2016). Wood’s request initiated the Pope’s subsequent visit to Lampedusa, a fundamental moment in bringing the world’s attention to the issue of migrant deaths and an example of just how important art can be in relation to the subject.

 During her epic journey, Wood experienced the kind of instability that makes migrant boats so treacherous for sea crossings. Despite being solidly built of African mahogany the boats have a shallow draught (the distance between the base of the hull and the water level) that renders them precarious in rough waters and means that they can easily tip when holding too many passengers or if the passengers move to one side (Wood 2016). Wood travelled with the objects that had been abandoned by the migrants on the boat and other found objects that she had collected. She displayed filmed footage of the stories of migrants that she met en route, organized ‘sit-ins’ to experience the cramped conditions on the boat, and recorded her journey in a blog entitled ‘The Chronicles of Lampedusa’ (Wood 2013). T06411 had no running water and no toilet facilities:


I wanted to keep the vessel in as original condition as possible and to travel with some of the original objects and possessions left on it. To do this, I felt it important to live as basically as possibly to ensure TO6411’s integrity as a found object and as a floating museum/performance piece. (Wood 2013)


After reaching London the boat was moored close to Surrey Docks and the public were invited aboard. Wood noted that even the wash from the passing tourist boats on the Thames was enough to disturb the balance of T06411. Having arrived shortly after the tragedies of 3rd and 11th October, Wood explains that the UK press deemed her arrival to be too controversial to publicize at the time (Wood 2016). It was not until two months later, on World Refugee Day 2013, that a group of politicians and religious leaders took a short trip on the boat down the Thames to Westminster (Siedlecka 2013). 

T06411 has still not received the exposure or recognition that it deserves, despite having the potential to impact on audiences more than any other artwork on the subject to date. The boat is currently gathering moss at a mooring in Sheerness. Wood talks of a desire to sail it from London back to its original owner in Libya, from whom it was stolen by smugglers. Or to have it moored on the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park (Wood 2016). Surely it is not beyond the wit of curators to keep this boat afloat in the public eye? How about the next Venice Biennale?




























Figure 5: Vik Muniz, Lampedusa (2015), 56th Venice Biennale, image courtesy of the artist (c).


At the 2015 Venice Biennale, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz constructed a 45-foot wooden vessel entitled Lampedusa and covered it in scaled-up news articles about migrant deaths that occurred near the island (Figure 5). Art critic Jonathan Jones responded to the installation by saying ‘Arts response to migrant deaths should be way more aggressive’ (2015). In his article Jones notes how a few weeks before the Biennale began, ‘one of the Mediterranean world’s most flamboyant displays of wealth and luxury’, as many as 900 migrants drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean. He argues that ‘now the scale of our cruelty, the true consequences of all the rhetoric that dehumanizes migrants, have become so lethally clear, surely art on such a subject should be less equivocal, more angry’ (Jones 2015).




























Figure 6: The Centre for Political Beauty, The Dead Are Coming (2015), Exhumation in Sicily, Manuel Ruge


The Centre for Political Beauty’s project The Dead Are Coming more than answers Jones’s call to artistic arms (Figure 6). A Berlin-based group of artist activists, the group describe themselves as ‘an assault team that establishes moral beauty, political poetry and human greatness while aiming to preserve humanitarianism […] art must hurt, provoke and rise in revolt’ (The Centre for Political Beauty 2015). The group’s website includes images of the artists with war paint smudged across their faces.

A video accompanying the project looks and sounds like the trailer to an action horror movie:


A war is raging at the gates of Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people went missing. The victims were not identified. No one is looking for their relatives. Their countries of origin were not informed. We’ve done some research. Secret mass graves in Greece. Bodies lying in warehouses for 8 months. From this week onwards we no longer leave bodies to rot in Southern European cooling chambers. The Dead Are Coming. (The Centre for Political Beauty 2015)


The video shows footage of bodies on beaches, a mass grave of 200 people that the group claim to have discovered, and images of seventeen bodies stacked in a refrigerator with a pool of blood seeping out across the floor. 

The aim of the project is to force ‘the fall of the European Wall’, says Tilda Rosenfeld from the group (Neuendorf 2015). The plan is to exhume migrants’ bodies from ‘improper’ graves (Figures 6 and 7), in consultation with the deceased’s relatives, and to give them ‘dignified burials’ in Berlin, under the noses of the ‘bureaucratic murderers’ on the front lawn of the Chancellory. The website shows digitized mock-ups of the Chancellory lawn being turned into a graveyard with a vast arch spanning it that reads ‘To the Unknown Migrants’. 


Figure 7: The Centre for Political Beauty, The Dead are Coming (2015), Funeral of European wall-victims, Nick Jaussi (c). 


It is hard to ascertain what has actually taken place and what is conjecture, but apparently the first funeral happened on 16 June 2015. The body of a drowned Syrian woman was exhumed in Sicily and laid to rest by an Imam, not on the Chancellory lawn but in a cemetery in Berlin (Eddyjune 2015). The grave was surrounded by white chairs labelled with the names of invited politicians, including Angela Merkel, none of whom attended. Images of the two funerals that are said to have taken place show banks of photographers, some standing on chairs to get a better view into the grave (Figure 8). Is this a ‘dignified burial’? 

It could, of course, all be a complete fabrication. In the digitized world in which these artists operate, fact and fiction are ever more indistinguishable. Perhaps the authenticity of the project is irrelevant. As Picasso said, ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’ (Borofsky 2003). The role of art is to posit questions and possibilities for the viewer to interpret – not to provide answers.




























Figure 8: Jason deCaires Taylor, Raft of Lampedusa (2016), courtesy of the artist (c).


In 2016, British–Guyanese artist Jason deCaires Taylor installed Raft of Lampedusa (2016) (Figure 8). Taylor made casts of thirteen migrants and an abandoned migrant dinghy in cement and sunk them 46 feet underwater off the coast of Spain’s Lanzarote. At the bow of the dinghy sits a cast of Abdel Kader, a 29-year-old refugee from the Western Sahara who travelled alone on a sinking boat to Lanzarote as a 12–year-old (Smillie 2016). The sculpture also doubles up as an artificial reef and tourist attraction for divers. 

The title Raft of Lampedusa is a play on Theodore Gericault’s seminal painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819). A skeletal figure lies sprawled across the back of Taylor’s dinghy, a figure lifted straight out of Gericault’s painting. The painting was made in response to a far too familiar sounding event that occurred nearly 200 years ago, in which the captain of a boat deserted his crew and passengers – 147 people were cast adrift on a raft, with just fifteen survivors. In his article ‘The 200-year-old painting that puts Europe’s fear of migrants to shame’ Jonathan Jones describes Gericault’s painting as ‘a call for compassion, humanity and common decency’ (Jones 2015). A message sadly far more relevant today than it was 200 years ago.

In Gericault’s painting the anguish on the raft is tangible – the viewer is forced to feel the horror and suffering. However, Taylor’s submerged migrants wear contented expressions and are confusingly dressed for the beach in bikinis and shorts. Taylor states: ‘The work is not intended as a tribute or memorial to the many lives lost but as a stark reminder of the collective responsibility of our now global community’ (AJ+ 2016); the piece is about ‘hope, loss and abandonment by society’ (De la Chapelle 2016); ‘humans only have empathy when they see something of themselves, I intentionally made [the figures] very everyday [...] it’s us’ (Smillie 2016). 

The concept of portraying migrants as ‘us’ is a valid one, but to portray migrants as being content at the bottom of the sea seems insensitive. An emotive video of Taylor’s dinghy being lowered to the seabed elicited much attention on social media, providing a fascinating insight into the extent of public feeling about the subject of art and migrant deaths (AJ+ 2016). The main concerns expressed are whether art is the best use of resources in relation to migrant deaths and the potential for artists to profit from the misery of others – questions frequently heard in relation to art on the subject.























Figure 9: Activists and artists around the world have imitated the image of Aylan Kurdi, including these 30 people in Morocco, Fadel Senna ©.


Cult Chinese artist Ai WeiWei made a big splash in the art media recently by lying face down on a beach in a re-enactment of the image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy whose body was washed up near the Turkish resort of Bodrum in September 2015. Activists and artists around the world have also imitated the image. In ‘A portrait of the artist as a dead boy’, Hamid Dabashi asks:


What does it exactly mean when a world renowned artist, a rather portly middle-aged man, poses as the malnourished dead body of a Syrian refugee washed ashore as he and his family were trying to escape the slaughterhouse of their homeland? (2016)


Dabashi continues with a wider critique on the ability of contemporary art to deal with such sensitive subjects:


What I think we are facing today is a critical crisis of artistic representation – the fundamental failure of conceptual art as we know it today to come to terms with realities that have trespassed national, regional, or imaginative geographies of representation. The enormity of the tragedy we are witnessing in places such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. is yet to find its own aesthetic idiomaticity – and assimilating those horrid realities into conventional, even cliché and crude, conceptual art […] is no longer sufficient. It is in fact positively revolting. (Dabashi 2016)


In his latest work to hit the headlines Ai covered the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus during the 66th Berlinale International film festival with 14,000 life jackets that had been abandoned in Lesbos by migrants. What does the number 14,000 signify? It is not the number of deceased migrants, nor the number of rescued migrants; it is an arbitrary number – a dangerous thing in a subject that politicians would have us believe is all about numbers. To top it all off, Ai organized a fundraising event at the venue where grinning celebrity guests posed for selfies while dressed in silver emergency blankets – perhaps the epitome of a crude and clichéd response to the subject. 

At least Ai votes with his feet – he recently announced the closure of his ‘Ruptures’ exhibition in Copenhagen in protest against the Danish parliament's approval of laws to deter asylum seekers from entering the country. He has also set up a studio on the island of Lesbos from which he tweets images to his multitude of followers. Clearly Ai is well meaning, but are good intentions enough?




























Figure 10: Francesco Tuccio, Lampedusa Cross, British Museum. Joseph Paxton ©.


Visitors to Room 2 at the British Museum in London are greeted by a small wooden cross in a large glass display case, lit like a holy relic from ancient times. With unmistakably weather-worn paint, the upright of the Lampedusa Cross (2015) is daubed sunshine yellow and the horizontal in aqua blue, carved in curves reminiscent of gentle waves (Figure 9). 

The Lampedusa Cross is signed and dated on the back by its creator Francesco Tuccio. Tuccio is a carpenter based on the island who, in 2011, after witnessing newly arrived Eritrean migrants weeping in his church gave up making furniture and began collecting driftwood from the wreckage of migrant boats. Tuccio carved crosses from the driftwood, asked his parish priest to place a large cross above the altar of his church, and offered small crosses to every migrant that he saw. This led to commissions from every parish in Sicily, from Pope Francis and most recently from the British Museum. The Lampedusa Cross was also displayed on the altar at St Paul’s cathedral to mark the start of Refugee Week 2016. 

The Lampedusa Cross was carved from the boat that capsized off the island on 3 October 2013. This small wooden cross now shares a room with artefacts from across the world and across the ages. Tuccio sees his crosses as a ‘rebirth’ for the migrants who have lost their lives and a way of giving them dignity (The Local 2014). He says, ‘the cross redeems everyone, all people' (Kirby 2016). 

But how do migrants see the crosses? Is it right that migrant deaths are forevermore represented in the British Museum by the symbol of Christianity? Some of the crosses on migrant graves in Sicily have been bent backwards by visitors opposing exactly this kind of misrepresentation. The British Museum appears to concur with the religious nature of Tuccio’s gift: ‘This wooden cross […] will be a symbol of the suffering and hope of our times’ (British Museum 2015). 

The museum curator comments:


This cross is made from pieces of a boat that was wrecked on 11 October, 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa. 311 Eritrean and Somali refugees were drowned en route from Libya to Europe. Inhabitants of Lampedusa helped to save the lives of 155 others. [...] Mr Tuccio kindly made this piece for the British Museum to mark an extraordinary moment in European history and the fate of Eritrean Christians. (British Museum 2015)


In repeatedly specifying that the Lampedusa Cross marks the fate of Eritrean Christians, migrants of other faiths are excluded. The curator has also conflated two disasters, the 3rd October and the 11th October. The boat on the 11th October was carrying migrants from Syria and Palestine and capsized in Maltese waters with 34 dead. The boat on the 3rd of October was carrying Eritrean and Somali refugees, with 368 dead, not 311. These are facts about people’s deaths; the misinformation given by the museum has since been regurgitated numerous times by news and media agencies – surely museums have a responsibility to get the facts straight? 

The museum continues, ‘The Lampedusa disaster was one of the first examples of the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees/migrants as they seek to cross from Africa into Europe’ (BBC News 2015). The ‘Lampedusa disaster’, by which the museum is referring to 3rd October 2013, was not one of the ‘first examples of the terrible tragedies’ – it came after approximately 25 years of migration across the Mediterranean from Africa, during which time aid agencies estimate in excess of 20,000 people have died. 

The curator continues: ‘We don’t show photographs at the museum. We only show objects, and so the migrants, who have nothing, were always going to be invisible, and then I heard about the carpenter and his crosses’ (Kirby 2016). Migrants often have very little, but to state that they have ‘nothing’ is a poor excuse for the invisibility of the subject in our museums. Askavusa has displayed a collection of migrants’ belongings since 2000. Many of these objects speak volumes without alluding to, or promoting, any specific faith. Lucy Wood’s boat and collection of migrant objects have been in the United Kingdom since 2013 and could easily have been displayed in a museum. 

Fire at Sea (Rossi, 2016) by Italian director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rossi is the most recent take on the subject of migrant deaths at sea. Fire at Sea won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival, but as one reviewer states, it presents ‘the migrants not as individuals, but as alien beings in a science-fiction movie’ (N. B. 2016).

The film contains just two very brief scenes in which migrants speak; otherwise they are just observed as ‘others’ – observed as they weep and wait for the news of lost loved ones, as they queue to be searched, photographed and numbered once onshore, as their near-dead bodies are flung onto rescue boats and as their dead bodies lie in the hull of a boat. We see them speaking of their anguish but the sounds of their voices are muted and not translated. In one scene the camera dwells for far too long on a beautiful shot of a row of African men standing on a quayside in the dark, wrapped in shimmering golden survival blankets. These men are instantly objectified after having literally just beaten death.

Rossi was granted very rare and unlimited access to the migrants on the island but portrays them as voiceless victims. They look back at him through harrowed eyes, unable to object to being filmed. This is in stark contrast to the conclusion of Dagmawi Yimer's documentary film Il Soltanto il mare (2010) in which Yimer films the media as they film the arrival of migrants on the island – subverting the gaze and portraying the media as animals in a cage.

There has also been a recent trend for exhibiting endless photographs of migrants in camps in Calais and Lesvos, which could also be said to perpetuate the objectification and otherization of migrants – no matter how well meaning. Migrants should be are heard as well as seen, it is the individual voices that enable migrants to be seen as human beings, rather than as anonymous bodies for us to gaze at and pity. Curators, galleries and museums should be encouraging migrant’s voices in order to help change these perceptions.

We in the rarefied worlds of art and academia can theorize forever about the nature of artworks on migrant deaths, but perhaps the most important thing is that art continues to bring attention to the subject, as opposed to the two and a half decades of indifference that collective humanity had to it previously. People have been dying in the Mediterranean for twenty five years and the world paid little attention until the photograph of Aylan Kurdi. Subsequent images of drowned child migrants washed up on beaches have made little or no splash in the media. A more recent image of a drowned Syrian child being carried up the beach by his belt buckle only made page fifteen of The Evening Standard (Sands 2016). Countless others have not made it into print at all. It is essential to keep making art on the subject of migrant deaths at sea- whether it be equivocal, contentious, factual, fictitious, by migrants or by non-migrants – because the dead will keep coming. 




























Figure 11: Centre for Political Beauty, The Dead are Coming (2015), Exhumation in Sicily, Manuel Ruge (c).





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British Museum (2015), The Lampedusa Cross, British Museum text panel, Room 2.


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The Centre for Political Beauty (2015), http://www.politicalbeauty.com/about.html. Accessed 18 March 2016.


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Davis, B. (2007), ‘Disaster Team’, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/davis11-19-07_detail.asp?picnum=9. Accessed 1 July 2016. 


Chapelle, A. De la (2016), ‘Underwater migrant sculptures “drowned” in Atlantic Ocean to show human cost of refugee crisis’, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/underwater-migrant-sculptures-drowned-atlantic-ocean-show-human-cost-refugee-crisis-1544249. Accessed 1 July 2016. 


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