On one wall of the exhibition hangs a pink flip flop, the base curling up at the sides, dark patches of dirt spotted across it. To the right is a pair of twisted jeans next to an orange life jacket.
They’re objects you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a gallery, though they were on display at Sink Without a Trace, an exhibition at the P21 Gallery on the subject of migrant deaths at sea.
Co-curator and artist Maya Ramsay retrieved the objects whilst making rubbings from the graves of unidentified migrants in Sicily – she says that there’s no need to turn them into art, they’re powerful enough in themselves.
Maya’s objects bring viewers closer to physical materials they may have only seen on the news and it’s this that lies at the heart of the exhibition: context, depth, and finding a “balance between politics and aesthetics”.
Take the work of Italian photojournalist Max Hirzel, who has documented forensic attempts to trace victims from the 2015 “boat of innocents”. Known as the deadliest modern shipwreck in the Mediterranean, 800 people drowned as it sank en route to Italy from Libya.
Between June and November 2016 450 bodies and their personal belongings were examined by forensic medical staff, an unprecedented operation, given that bodies are usually left at the bottom of the sea and that there’s no standard protocol for retrieving them.
It was the recovered “boat of innocents”, or Barca Nostra, that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale by the artist Christoph Büchel, and which drew heavy criticism for exploiting a tragedy. It also lacked context, said a lot of critics – the opposite of what Hirzel’s photo series seeks to do.
Sink Without a Trace features 18 artists from ten countries and includes painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and video works. Seven of the artists have survived their own personal journey from their homeland by sea, and bring with them their experiences.
Shorsh Saleh is a Kurdish artist and a carpet designer and weaver by trade. His work, Aftermath, stands out. Made using natural pigment on paper, it is grey-blue with an orange origami boat in the top corner and a tiny image of Aylan Kurdi at the bottom left. The series evokes Persian miniatures and the motifs that feature on traditional carpets.
“[Saleh’s] work has been a therapeutic practice for himself, to do with his history and his journey,” says Ramsay.
Mazin Ahmad Mohammed from South Sudan and an anonymous artist from Sudan have made clay boats with twisted figures over the top of them. The boats were never fired, which gives them a fragile, vulnerable quality.
The work of Aida Silverstri, an Italian Eritrean artist, is a series of blurred images of refugees. A single line central to the picture represents the journey they took. The interviews she made with them have been made into poems and have been placed alongside the work.
“It was like a journey she made with them; a process,” explains co-curator Federica Mazzara, a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.
An investigation by Forensic Oceanology takes viewers back to the 2011 Arab Spring, a year in which, at the time, a record high of over 1,500 people drowned or went missing whilst attempting the deadly stretch of the Mediterranean.
Using surveillance footage and interviews with one of the survivors the left-to-die boat is a video analysis of a tragic event that same year in which 72 passengers set out from Libya for Lampedusa on a rubber boat. They were left to drift for two weeks despite the fact that they were in NATO’s maritime surveillance area and distress signals relayed their location. Sixty-three passengers drowned.
Eight years later and a recent strike on Tajoura refugee detention centre in Libya that killed over 40 people has made headlines. It is yet another catastrophe which has shone a light on the misguided policies of state actors – this time the EU, which trains Libyan coast guards to return people rescued at sea to Libya where they are kept in detention centres, just to keep them away from Europe’s shores.
The left-to-die boat and the Tajoura strike happened almost a decade apart; if the first wasn’t enough to stop the second, what has to happen to stop more deaths occurring in the future?
“Change the policies,” says Mazzara. “We don’t need more missions, we need to change policies that’s what we need. And of course, thank God, there are NGOs who save lives but it’s a paradox that we are so concentrated on the rescues. The old discussion is about should we rescue, should we not rescue. The problem is, why do we have the policies that begin with people at risk of dying? And that’s not even part of the discussion, it’s not even on the political agenda.”
“After all, these people are dying because of the patrolling of our borders, so it’s a paradox, if we don’t change the debate about these issues, we’re going to see this for many, many more decades.”
“And the question of why are people fleeing in the first place?” adds Maya. “Obviously, because of conflict, and whose selling the weapons. The whole capitalist system has to change for anything to change.”
The curators hope that viewers will come away from the exhibition inspired to push for a new way to confront the migrant crisis: “We’ve been trying to encourage people to not just see the art passively and to have an emotional response,” says Ramsay, “but to go away and do something and try to campaign to change policy, donate to charity.”