On a sticky June afternoon in Palermo, Italy, I walked 45 minutes from the historic centre of the city to a working-class neighbourhood. My destination was Zisa Zona Arti Contemporanee, a large industrial building, resembling an aircraft hangar, which is operated by the local Department of Culture.
The space is currently hosting an extraordinary travelling multimedia exhibition titled ‘ReSignifications’ – a collateral event of Manifesta 2018, the roving European biennial of contemporary art. (It runs until 4 November.) Curated by the Nigerian playwright and associate professor at NYU Tisch, Awam Amkpa, it was inspired by ‘Blackamoor’ statues in the Florentine Villa la Pietra collection. Although the show invokes classical and popular representations of African bodies in European art, culture and history, it is also a powerful meditation on the diasporic and ‘black Mediterranean’ – a term which has sparked international interest since it was first coined by Italian academic Alessandra Di Maio, an assistant professor of English at the University of Palermo. Along with 150 works of art by 44 international artists – including Omar Victor Diop, Zanele Muholi, Mary Sibande, Mickalene Thomas and Deborah Willis – the show also includes items from the African art collection of Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning author, Wole Soyinka.
Spanning time, space and genres, this powerful exhibition includes depictions of African bodies in European art and re-imagines black identity for the 21st century. Black figures are presented as soldiers, courtiers and servants, as saints, prophets and mythical characters. But they are also employed to represent and respond to the crisis of people on the move from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea, which has swallowed more than 1,500 souls this year alone. The exhibition seeks to amend a deep problem with representations of black bodies in Europe: a history in which our voices have been racialized, subjugated and silenced. It becomes clear that slavery and colonialism are not merely historic footnotes but contemporary lived realities for the thousands of Africans who cross the choppy waters of the sea that the Romans christened Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). Yet, the ‘our’ here does not include black bodies. It’s a sea which the European Union has militarized as its member states squabble over the legality of search and rescue missions: this summer, Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini denied NGO rescue boats the right to dock in Italian ports. The EU has built a vast border infrastructure to keep migrants out and justifies letting them die in the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea as a deterrent to people smugglers, but the policy has failed. ‘ReSignifications’ is a timely unpicking of how long-hidden, forgotten or denied histories play into this ongoing crisis.
Today’s realities at Europe’s border are rooted in slavery, colonialism, mass extraction and global capitalism – a plethora of historic political forces that have imbued the West with power and wealth for centuries, at the expense of countries in the Global South. When it comes to current public discussions about immigration in the Mediterranean and beyond, this is a fact that is rarely acknowledged. From the 1880s to the 1940s, Italy was the colonial power in Somalia, Libya and Eritrea and, in 1936, Ethiopia was occupied by Benito Mussolini’s fascist state. But, in Italy, the media coverage of migration tends to repeat that ‘these people’ have come from nowhere and for no apparent reason. Nor, for that matter, is the violence meted out to African migrants by EU border systems much discussed. Decolonizing means the creation of a decolonial gaze in order to understand the historic context of migration yet, going by most news reports, this has not happened.
Responding to the crisis in the Mediterranean also means understanding the Eurocentric architecture of legal definitions. We need to decolonize the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key legal document that was ratified by 145 state parties and adopted by the United Nations. It is too limited to respond adequately to the contemporary scale of migration that has been caused not just by war but by climate change and economic crises. If, say, a Gambian or Senegalese migrant journeys to Europe in search of a better life, they are not perceived to be as deserving of the same level of sympathy as a Syrian. The result is a league table of migrant suffering and the reiteration of simplistic binaries between good versus bad migrants. This is an outmoded approach to understanding the complexities of what motivates people to leave their homelands.
To illegally cross a border, to evade border guards, to scale metal fences and to survive the Mediterranean Sea is an act not only of survival but of imagination. To end this tide of human misery not only requires sensible, humane and unified government policies, but a willingness to understand the deeper histories of colonialism and violence that cast non-white bodies as victims lacking agency. The current situation renders Africans invisible and, for many Europeans, simply reinforces Africa itself as a caricature of its nightmares and beauty.
Main image: Deni Ponty, Art Guard, 2000. Courtesy: the artist and New York University
Published in frieze, issue 199, November/December 2018, with the title ‘Our Sea’.
First published in Issue 199