Guest post by Francesca Soliman. Francesca is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. She researches the social harms caused by EU-level border control policies on migrants and border communities in the Mediterranean. In 2018 she spent two months on the island of Lampedusa, Italy.

The rusty wreck of a North African fishing boat is currently being exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Over 800 migrants are thought to have died on this boat when it sank in the Mediterranean Sea in the early hours of 18 April 2015. It was the second boat to sink that week during attempts by merchant ships to assist migrants in distress. Ill-equipped for rescue operations, merchant ships had been filling the void left by the withdrawal of the Italian navy’s search and rescue patrols. Over 1200 people are estimated to have died in these two incidents, and the wreck has become a symbol of Europe’s indifference to the high death toll of Mediterranean crossings.

The choice to exhibit this boat at the Biennale has not escaped criticism. Italian journalist Lorenzo Tondo has expressed his discomfort over the exploitation of tragedy for the sake of provocation. He is not alone: The Art Newspaper describes the boat as the Biennale’s ‘most troubling display’ due to the lack of context or information about the boat’s history being provided to visitors. The artist, Christoph Büchel, has decided not only to provide no explanatory signs, but has also so far refused to comment on the exhibit. His collaborator Mariachiara di Trapani declared that she expects visitors to ‘feel respect for it and look at it in silence’, but the boat’s location next to the outdoor café makes this doubtful.

The exhibition of the boat is ethically problematic, and serves no purpose other than to shock ticket-holders, just like any of the hundreds of exhibits by other artists seeking to establish their credentials on the world’s stage. Presenting controversial topics in such a highly visible but decontextualized manner is not only questionable, but harmful. Büchel should know, as he has done this before: at the 2015 Venice Biennale he set up a Mosque inside a disused church. The church, however, was not deconsecrated, and the exhibition was closed once local Muslims begun to hold prayers in it. The exhibit was closed, and public condemnation for the perceived blasphemy and provocation fell on the local Muslim community. Religious leaders soon distanced themselves from the exhibit and asked that it no longer be used for prayers. Under the pretence of highlighting the lack of a space for Venice’s Muslims to pray, the decontextualized and provocative exhibit instead damaged already fractious community relations, exploiting a marginalised community for the sake of publicity. This year’s exhibit has already been labelled as political propaganda by some in Italy’s far-right government, and the controversy hijacked to push for harsher anti-migration policies.

A further issue relates to the ownership of the wreck, and the power of Italian authorities to give it on loan. When it was recovered for the purpose of identifying the bodies trapped inside its hull, the boat contained 528 corpses, 325 skulls and 28,000 other bones, although medical examiners could only identify a handful of victims before funding ran dry. But Italian authorities do not own the wreck itself, which sank in international waters, and which according to Italian law must be scrapped. Labelling the boat as a work of conceptual art does little to mask its commercial use. While exhibits at the Venice Biennale are not on sale, the Biennale is a well-known market for artists seeking visibility and is considered ‘as commercial as art fairs’. There are no grounds for authorities to allow the commercial use of seized property, particularly when it is linked to the death of hundreds. Worse still, there is no evidence that survivors or victims’ families were ever consulted.

This is not the first time that migrants’ boats have been used as art, but the Biennale’s exhibit stands out as the worst example of appropriation and exploitation of migrants’ deaths. In 2015 Italian artist Massimo Sansavino was given access to the island of Lampedusa’s ‘boat cemetery’, a dumping ground where seized migrants’ boats have been accumulating for decades. These boats are not the remnants of shipwrecks, but usually have either reached the coast unintercepted or been towed by the Coast Guard after a rescue at sea. Most boat wreckages are never recovered and remain at the bottom of the sea.

The ‘boat cemetery’ in Lampedusa (Photo: Francesca Soliman)

Sansavino used the boats to make small wooden sculptures on the theme of sea migration. Unlike the Biennale, Sansavino’s exhibition was free and it toured not only museums, but also libraries and other public buildings around Italy. The exhibition was accompanied by wider information explaining Mediterranean migration, and informative events specifically designed for children. Its purpose was clearly educational and non-commercial.

In Lampedusa, local carpenter Franco Tuccio has been using the wood from migrants’ boats to make crosses for 10 years. Tuccio has famously made hundreds of crosses and donated them to churches and other institutions throughout the world. One of these crosses was made for the Pope, and another for the British Museum. Several mark the graves of nameless dead migrants buried in Lampedusa’s cemetery.

Franco Tuccio's crosses in Lampedusa's cemetery (Photo: Francesca Soliman)

Overwhelmed by demand, Tuccio now sells small crucifixes in his shop, all made from migrant boats. A deeply religious man, Tuccio sells these as objects of worship, accompanied by a note containing a prayer for those who died at sea. He also takes part in educational events for schoolchildren visiting Lampedusa, explaining the realities of the border. Finally, the wood he uses belongs to seized boats that have already been destroyed; left to rot while moored in port, the boats’ parts eventually break and wash up on the beach, where Tuccio collects them.

These examples show that art can talk about migrant deaths without succumbing to exploitation, commercialisation, and reckless sensationalism. As migration researchers already know, migration issues do not need visibility if it comes without a commitment to the empowerment of migrants. Little more than a death toll, at Venice’s Biennale migrant bodies remain nameless, voiceless, invisible: we must stand up to these attempts to usurp their right to tell their own story.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Soliman, F. (2019) In the Name of Art? The Commercialization of Migrant Deaths. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/06/name-art (Accessed [date])