“Exile” is the painting that launched my journey through the theme of the Mediterranean migration crisis. Since this painting takes us deep inside what is happening across the Mediterranean, I wish to begin this article by sharing with you the video trailer of Fuocoammare, an Italian documentary film about the island of Lampedusa, where many migrants land, by Gianfranco Rosi.
The doctor that you hear speaking in the second part of the trailer is Pietro Bartolo1Pietro Bartolo is a well-known doctor who works in Lampedusa, a little island in the South of Sicily, Italy: he takes care of the medical conditions of the migrants that land in Lampedusa, and all of those who temporarily stay in the island’s Hospitality centers. In 2016 he published his book “Lacrime di sale” with Lidia Tilotta. “Lacrime di sale” tells his history and his daily life while serving as the doctor of Lampedusa. The book has been translated into several languages. In 2018 he published, in collaboration with his son Giacomo Bartolo, his second book, “Le stelle di Lampedusa”, which tells the story of Anila and other children looking for their future among us. He takes part in the documentary film Fuocoammare by the well-known director Gianfranco Rosi.. As a result of his experience working in Lampedusa at the forefront of the reception of migrants, Bartolo wrote a book, in collaboration with journalist and writer Lidia Tilotta, that was translated into English with the title Tears of Salt. This book was a source of inspiration for my work and, especially, for the next two paintings that I will introduce to you in future posts.
I’d like to share a particularly brutal and explicit excerpt from this book. Unfortunately, events like the one described by Bartolo happen––in action movies as well as in real life––and I believe that omitting them, far from solving any problems, only hastens our forgetting. Bartolo recounts one of his recurring nightmares, sadly based on what he actually experienced on July 31st, 2011:
A great many refugees had come in that afternoon. Around nine in the evening, a fishing boat of roughly thirty-six feet in length docked at the pier, with two hundred and fifty people on board. With a younger doctor I began to examine the passengers, allowing them to disembark one by one. They were all distraught. Some were wailing and tearing at their hair; others were weeping silent tears. We could not understand why: no one was severely ill, and there had not been any deaths on board. The last migrants to disembark told me there was a problem in the hold, but said no more.
It was almost nightfall and the boat was empty. I found the hatch to the hold, which was in fact a freezer for storing fish, and lifted it. The opening was narrow, and below it was pitch black. I could only just squeeze through and lower myself inside. It was stuffy, and there was an unpleasantly sweet smell in the air. Blindly, I felt for the floor, and found that it was soft and uneven beneath my feet. I took a few tentative steps forward. It was a peculiar sensation, as if I were walking on cushions. Meanwhile, the strange odor had thickened and was now unbearably strong. I fumbled for my mobile telephone and switched on the torch.
The floor lit up, and I found myself in a chamber of hell. The hold was paved entirely with corpses. I had been walking on dead bodies. Innumerable young bodies. They were naked, piled on top of each other, some with limbs intertwined. It was Dantesque. The walls were scratched and dripping with blood. Many of these young dead people had no fingernails.
I scrambled up and out of the hold and vomited on the deck. I was shaken, lost, overwhelmed. I could scarcely believe it was real. I went to tell the others on the pier what I had seen; they too were in disbelief. Then a firefighter climbed down there, and we began to bring up the bodies. […] Many had fractured skulls and hands. They had clearly been beaten. The survivors were the brothers, sisters, and friends of those massacred in the hold – that was why they had been so distressed. The traffickers had threatened and intimidated them into remaining silent, but as soon as the police began to question them, the awful truth came out.
The first fifty migrants to board the boat in Libya had been stuffed into that freezer. They were the youngest and thinnest, and had been selected to go first because they could most easily fit through the hatch. Another two hundred and fifty were above deck. The boat was overloaded. The only air in the hold entered through a tiny porthole, but the passengers underneath were told that as soon as the boat left the harbor, they would be allowed on deck. Twenty-five of them were released, but then the vessel grew unstable and the traffickers stopped the others from following. Unable to breathe, they yelled and tried to climb out, but the smugglers beat them and threw them back into the freezer. Desperate to escape, they tried to push their way out all together, so that even the blows could not stop them. But human violence knows no limits. The smugglers took the cabin door off its hinge, planted it on the porthole, and sat on it. There was no more air, no more life.
Fifteen minutes was all it took to snuff out twenty-five lives. Fifteen minutes in which those poor young people did everything they could think of to survive. Fifteen minutes that must have seemed a century to them. When I examined their bodies, I could see why the wall had been covered in blood. They had been trying to tear the boards off them, scraping until their fingers bled and their nails ripped, until their hands were reduced to raw flesh and splinters. […] Fifty bloody hands. Twenty-five screaming voices. And the others above deck, forced to remain impassive though they knew exactly what was happening. They had to pretend they could not hear the imploring voices of their companions as they died like rats in a trap. (Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta, Tears of Salt, W.W. Norton & Company. Translated from the Italian by Chenxin Jiang.)
The number of victims of the Mediterranean Sea is countless and constantly growing. The sea restlessly returns their remains, as if they were empty bottles carrying a message, one that many of us do not want to read.
Gradually, European governments have cut funding for missions like Bartolo’s, leaving the Mediterranean less and less patrolled, while other rescue teams present in the area, aboard ships belonging to NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), have not met a better fate. Attacked through a steady campaign of delegitimization, they have been repeatedly accused of complicity with criminal organizations and collaboration with the refugee smugglers. None of these accusations has ever been proved, but public opinion has gradually embraced such positions, pushed by political leaders, such as Luigi Di Maio, who in 2017 described the NGO ships as “taxis of the sea”. As a result of these campaigns, there are less and less NGO ships patrolling the Mediterranean, and many of them, during the past months, have found themselves wandering for days in the Mediterranean after having rescued migrants, while waiting for the European governments to decide if, when, and where they can land.
But let’s forget for a moment that these people are human beings, and let’s think only about numbers, as some prefer to do. According to the IOM, the United Nations International Organization for Migration, 17,644 (seventeen thousand six hundred and forty-four) people died in the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2018. However, the number of recorded annual deaths in the Mediterranean has since decreased: with around two thousand deaths logged in 2018, and two hundred and thirty-four deaths in the first two and a half months of 2019, 65 percent of them en route between Africa and Italy/Malta. While the current Italian government argues that this decrease attests to the quality of their recent decisions (i.e. fighting NGO boats and closing, at least apparently, harbors to migrants), journalists highlight that this human loss and suffering has merely become more invisible. For example, R. Gatti and L. Manconi write:
… The flows of migrants and refugees are continuing, and the deaths do not stop. The reduction of the number of landings mainly coincides with the increasing of the number of people being held in detention centers in Libya. There, they are tortured, raped, killed. The absence of humanitarian aid in the Mediterranean means that we know every day less and less about what happens there: just a few days ago 184 people landed in Lampedusa, so this means that the escapes continue but that they became less visible and less verifiable (Il Manifesto in September 2018)
In short, precarious ships full of desperate people keep trying to cross the Mediterranean. The difference is that, now, nobody knows what is happening to these people. People not only drown in the abyss of the sea but also in the abyss of oblivion, while the average European citizen only perceives a reduction in the number of departures, shipwrecks, and landings.
“Exile,” my first painting of this series, was born in this political and social climate. A day like any other, about a year ago, and after the nth news report about a ship sunk off the Italian coast, I took the brush with the urgency of pulling out all the tears that I was not able to cry, perhaps because those tears were not just mine. Perhaps I acted with the same urgent need that the photojournalist Nilüfer Demir felt when she saw the silent, drowned body of Alan Kurdi: the urgency to break the silence, hoping that something could change. It was her duty in that moment, just as it was my duty that day one year ago, and as it should be our duty, every day, as human beings. I did not have a clear idea of what to represent. I looked into myself and found anger mixed up with desperation, powerlessness, shock, horror, and sadness. I found a sense of loss but, above all, a strong desire for revolution.
I painted a stormy sea made of bodies of women, men, and children. And then a typical southern Italian lighthouse made of stones, but turned off, since there was no light in that place, no hope. The sea gently touches the lighthouse, while a fragile little boat made of newspaper, on which the word “exile” is written, is violently rocked by the storm. Hands emerge from the waves, desperately trying to find a hold on the figure of a woman, who cries while bowing her head. This is a woman meant to represent the suffering of all mothers, but also of the motherland, abused and exploited by the oil well pump jacks on her head. The woman cries, and her tears slowly turn into a flying bird.
Yet even this hope is short-lived, because the bird that should fly over the sea in freedom turns into a team of bomber aircrafts, attacking, in turn, the head of the woman. At the bottom right, a fish opens its mouth to swallow the whole sea. Its glassy eye shows its identity: its name is Oblivion.
There were moments when it was very hard for me to work on this painting. Everything I saw while closing my eyes was painful and made me more confused. After all, Demir was paralyzed in front of Alan’s body, but she decided to take that photo anyway. Regardless of the confusion and difficulty, I knew throughout the creative process that I was doing the right thing. When I started the painting, as I said, I did not have a clear idea of what I was going to do. But certainly, from this vantage point, this painting represents a question for all of us: Is there any trace of hope?
English translation edited by Christine Martinez
All Rights Reserved. Exile, acrylic on canvas. Painter: Laura Grimaldi.