LONDON – “We can’t tell you to enjoy this exhibition.” That was the message from the curators Federica Mazzara and Maya Ramsay on the opening night of “Sink Without Trace: Exhibition on Migrant Deaths at Sea” at London’s P21 Gallery.
It is a haunting, eerie exhibition. A soiled orange life vest hangs on the wall; visitors see the remains of shoes worn by a migrant who drowned at sea and the nails from a shipwrecked migrant boat. The objects are collected from such vessels in Sicily, anonymous drawings made on migrant boats and works created by unaccompanied minors in transit camps in Calais, France.
Close to the gallery on Regents Canal a rescued North African migrant boat is moored. British artist Lucy Wood set out on an epic solo voyage from the southern Italian island of Lampedusa to London in the boat in 2013. The vessel served as a floating art installation containing the objects that had been abandoned by the migrants and videos telling the stories of those Wood met in Lampedusa. Visitors to the exhibition are welcome to experience the cramped conditions onboard. In the gallery, Wood is showing sculpture and wall-based works, including wooden fragments of migrant boats onto which she has painted media images of the migration crisis.
The works of 18 artists from Denmark, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel, Italy, Slovakia, South Africa and Sudan are featured in the exhibition.
In “From a Distance,” mixed media Iraqi Kurdish artist Behjat Omer Abdulla tells a tragic story in the form of a series of graphite drawings of twins. A mother coming from the Middle East to Europe across the Mediterranean kept the body of one of the twins who died on the boat with her. As tensions rose the smugglers tried to force the mother to throw the body of the dead child into the sea. She refused and one night when she was sleeping they took action but they mistakenly threw the sleeping child into the sea.
Deaths off the Libyan coast are a recurring theme. In a 12-minute video “The Bureaucracy of Angels,” Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin record the demolition of 100 migrant boats in Sicily in the winter of 2016.
In the “Migrant Bodies” series of images, photographer Max Hirzel focuses on the wreckage of a boat that was recovered near the Libyan coast with 450 bodies inside. Hirzel goes beyond documenting the tragedy to uncover the stories of some of those involved.
“Half a mile from Lampedusa” by Tamara Kametani tells the story of a capsized boat carrying more than 500 migrants and refugees from Libya to Lampedusa. A total of 368 people died and Italian navy divers recorded video footage underwater. Kametani’s cyanotype is a single frame taken from this footage. The cyanotype printing method does not use a fixer to stabilise the image and prevent it from fading. As a result, the image fades slowly during the exhibition, metaphorically highlighting the fact that the memory of the event will continue to fade until it disappears from public memory.
In “Faces of Sea,” Iraqi Kurdish artist Mariwan Jalal displays a series of screen prints based on his personal experience of travelling to the United Kingdom by sea. “I was born in an area very far from the sea. I had no relationship with the sea other than having seen it in the movies until the day came when I had to travel to the sea and attempt to cross it illegally,” Jalal said.
The concept for the “Sink Without Trace” exhibition was born out of the curator’s long-standing research into the subject of art and migrant deaths at sea. Mazzara, a senior lecturer in Intercultural Communications at the University of Westminster, is the author of “Reframing Migration: Lampedusa, Border Spectacle and Aesthetics of Subversion.” Ramsay, an award-winning artist and the author of “Reframing the Debate: the Art of Lampedusa” is exhibiting a series of 30 graphite rubbings from the graves of 30 unidentified migrants who died at sea while trying to reach Europe.
The exhibition and the catalogue are raising money for Alarm Phone, a rescue hotline for migrants in distress at sea.
The curators and artists are definitely trying to influence public opinion.
In a questionnaire handed out at the end, visitors are asked to what extent their views or understanding of migrant deaths at sea changed upon visiting the exhibition and whether they would be more likely to engage with campaigns to improve migration policies in the United Kingdom and Europe after their visit to the exhibition.