Thursday, January 12, 2017

Special Issue on Lampedusa and Cultural Expressions

Dera all,
I am so glad to share with you the news that my Special Issue on Lampedusa and Cultural expressions (Lampedusa: Cultural and artistic spaces for migrant voices) is now out. The issue is published in the journal Crossings: Journal of Migration and Cultures. Below you can read my Editorial:

Federica Mazzara

Lampedusa is nowadays internationally known for being the first landing shore for thousands of migrants1 who are forced to cross irregularly the Sicilian Channel from Africa in overcrowded dinghies, putting their lives at risk in order to reach Europe, after escaping areas of poverty and conflict. However, Lampedusa is also the destination of international tourism, which seeks out the island especially for its pristine seabed and beautiful beaches. In trying to negotiate this double identity of, on the one hand, the point of arrival and location of a reception centre for desperate migrants and, on the other, the destination of tourists in search of leisure, Lampedusa is a site of tension that has also produced critical spaces of cultural expressions that this Special Issue analyses. The articles presented here share the view that within the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ of at least the past two decades, Lampedusa has been used as a stage of spectacle (De Genova 2005; Cuttitta 2014), where migrants are only allowed to appear in their desolation and misery, with no possibility to subjectify the experience of migrating itself which could allow them to recover their dignity and voices within a predominantly hostile Europe, which often rejects them and the reasons for their passage.

In line with another recent special issue published in the journal Italian Studies, edited by Luciano Baracco and entirely dedicated to Lampedusa (Baracco 2015), this issue recognizes that the question of migration around the Mediterranean island needs an approach that takes into account the diverse and contradictory narratives revolving around the arrival of ‘wasted lives’ (Bauman 2004) in a peripheral borderland, yet at the centre of an ‘emergency’ that is rarely challenged.
The idea for this special issue came from a Symposium I organized at UCL in October 2014 called Lampedusa: Migratory Space, Memory and Aesthetics. On that occasion, I invited Alessandro Triulzi (president of the Archivio Memorie Migranti [Archive of Migrant Memories], based in Rome), Ilaria Vecchi (film-maker and member of the Lampedusa-based collective Askavusa) and Valentina Zagaria (anthropologist and theatre director, author of Miraculi, a play about Lampedusa based on collective ethnographic research on the island) to talk about their personal experi- ences dealing with migration in the context of Lampedusa through a less common approach that would include cultural and artistic practices. The symposium generated a further discussion2 on the topic of aesthetics of migration that I link to the work of scholars such as Mieke Bal, and to her pioneering contributions on the topic of ‘migratory aesthetics’ (Bal 2007; Bal and Hernández-Navarro 2011).
The premise here is that in the context of representation, art and cultural discourses reveal aspects of migration that are invisible to governmental and public discourses. Aesthetic representations are better positioned to allow the protagonists of the Mediterranean passage to acquire a visibility commonly denied in mainstream narratives. As I have stated elsewhere, the aesthetic discourse has the ability ‘to reorganize the realm of the visible, diverting the position and the roles of observers and observees, in order to gain different perspectives’ (Mazzara 2015: 460). In so doing, cultural and artistic practices disrupt the ‘representational system that aims at reducing migrant subjectivities to mere bodies without words and yet threatening in their presence as a mass, a multitude, an haemorrhagic stream of anonymous and unfamiliar others’ (Mazzara 2015: 460).
All the contributions to this issue embrace a view that considers migrants as individuals with autonomy, subjects of power that are able to challenge the biased representation of them as criminals or victims, depend- ing on the framework applied, respectively the securitarian or humanitar- ian one, a representation that even cultural practices endorse at times, as in the case of the very recent and award-winning documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea, 2016)3. Despite all the international praise received, Rosi’s film limits itself to drag the viewer to compassion and pity, through a spectacle of suffering that locates the migrants – and to some extend also the locals – at the usual space of invisibility they commonly inhabit in all mainstream representations, failing to encourage a more sophisticated understanding of the issue of immigration into Lampedusa. Migrants do not take the word in the film, apart from a few minutes when they describe how they are distributed in the boat or when they sing a song expressing their desperation, otherwise they appear in all their misery: crying, dirty, exhausted people freshly rescued by the ‘heroes’ of the Italian Navy, or – even worse – they appear as corpses, while the documentary fails
to address the reasons behind their death. As Sandra Ponzanesi has recently observed regarding Rosi’s documentary:
'The rescue scenes [...] have science-fiction, alienating undertones. The shiny laminate thermal blankets give a group of immigrants a surreal look, especially in contrast to the white overall and masks worn by the rescue team to protect themselves from possible contagion, creating an encounter that cannot possibly be on equal footing. We never hear any of the migrants directly, or their personal story. They offer a face, correct- ing therefore our perception of just numbers, but their subjective posi- tion never comes to the fore'.
(Ponzanesi 2016: 12–13)
Rosi’s documentary does not to take into consideration many crucial aspects of the phenomenon of immigration in Lampedusa, such as the fact that the process of militarization of the island has grown to an unbearable extent, or that inside the island there is a strong resistance to the spectacle of the ‘migrant crisis’, performed by locals and people interested in subverting the mainstream narrative that has afflicted Lampedusa in at least the past two decades. Among these, the local collective called Askavusa (‘the barefoot woman’ in Sicilian dialect) has for years promoted a counter-discourse involv- ing migrants in some of their initiatives and is now mainly interested in resist- ing the process of making the island a stronghold of the European border patrol system which is, paradoxically, in charge of rescuing migrants from the very peril caused by this system. The article by Ilaria Vecchi, in this issue, relates the genesis of the collective and its provocative, and at times problem- atic, initiatives.
The humanitarian and sentimentalist approach of Rosi’s film has not done much for the island of Lampedusa, rather it has contributed to keep- ing concealed the fact that the island is a vibrant place and at the centre of a counter-narrative that does not appear in the mainstream media, which this issue is keen to acknowledge through the contributions of scholars, activists and artists who have spent lots of energy in attempts to reveal the reversed side of the coin. The work done by the Archivio Memorie Migranti (Archive of Migrant Memories), which is at the centre of the articles by Alessandro Triulzi and Giancluca Gatta, is an example of the resistance and encouragement of a migrant struggle promoted by the Archive, by involving migrants in cultural projects of self-narration and representation. The article by Gianluca Gatta, in particular, describes the frustration related to the making of a museum of migration on the island, which had a troubled genesis till the project was finally abandoned.
The issue also addresses the possibility of looking at art as a possible way to subvert the narrative. In particular, Valentina Zagaria describes the various steps that led her and a group of international actors to carry out a fieldwork on the island that would end up in the making of a play called Miraculi (‘miracles’in Sicilian dialect) which engages mostly with the inhabit- ants of Lampedusa and their struggles within the framework of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’.
Maya Ramsey’s article looks at the various art practices that migration into Lampedusa, and in general into Europe, has produced in recent years, raising important issues that address the legitimacy of these forms of representation from the perspective of a practicing artist.
My article, which opens the issue, intends to frame its theoretical approach by also referring to some examples of struggle that have occurred within and outside the island, where migrants have been the main actors, and have used their own voices and stories to subvert physical and mental borders.
Finally and most importantly, this issue includes a section called ‘Tales of Journeys’ that collects the words of those who have personally experienced the traumatic passage and are eager to share with us the pain, frustration and fear of those moments that led them to undertake the journey (Zakaria Mohamed Ali), the journey itself (Dagmawi Yimer) and the return to the island of Lampedusa as an individual who wants to pay a visit to the place where he first felt safe (Mahamed Aman).
This section ends with an unpublished short story by the Italian-Ethiopian writer and performer Gabriella Ghermandi, whose art is an expression of the strive to cope with the arduousness of migrating and adapting in a cultural space that does not respect your identity and values.
The section ‘Tales of journeys’ is the signature of this issue that lets the actors of the migratory passage subvert the roles of observer and observed, offering the western gaze a chance to suspend the process of spectaculariza- tion in favour of a subjectification of the experience of migrating, beyond any concept of‘crisis’,‘border patrolling’and‘humanitarian intervention’.

  1. In this issue the word migrant is used to indicate a broad group of ‘illegalized travellers’ who want to reach Europe
    but do not have the required documents to do so. These include economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who escape conflict areas or extreme poverty.
  2. When the idea of a Special Issue was developed, other contributors were included in order to present a more comprehensive and diverse view on the topic.
  3. The documentary won the 66th Golden Bear at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival.

I wish to thank all the contributors to this issue for the passion and commit- ment shown in the making of this collaborative project, in particular Alessandro Triulzi for all his advices and comments at various stages, Valentina Zagaria for her supportive enthusiasm since the very beginning and for a care- ful final reading of the whole issue, Ilaria Vecchi for sharing with me over the past years her experience as an activist in the island of Lampedusa, Gianluca Gatta for his willingness to join the project at a later stage, offering his critical view on a project that deserves lots of attention, and Maya Ramsay for adding her perspective as a practitioner.
I also want to thank the Archivio Memorie Migranti (Archive of Migrant Memories) for giving me the opportunity to include in the issue the voices of those who made the journey towards Lampedusa: Dagmawi Yimer, Mahamed Aman and Zakaria Mohamad Ali, whose travel textual testimonies are a precious document we need to preserve. Thank you Dagmawi, Mohamed and Zakaria!
My special thanks also to Gabriella Ghermandi, a writer I admire for her courage to break the silence over painful and untold memories of a woman in-between cultures, for her willingness to offer one of her unpublished short stories to this issue.
I want to thank the Lampedusa collective Askavusa, a hub of incessant reasoning around immigration and its implications in the island that has informed my research on the aesthetics of subversion in Lampedusa at vari- ous stages.
Finally, it is with immense gratitude that I acknowledge the support of Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, in particular the team’s supportive enthusiasm and the assistance offered during the making of this Special Issue; my special thanks go to Parvati Nair, Elisa Costa Villaverde and Julie Strudwick.

This issue is dedicated to the memory of all those unnamed migrants who hoped to reach the shores of Lampedusa and are instead resting at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

Bal, M. (2007), ‘Lost in space, lost in the library’, in S. Durrant and C. Lord (eds), Essays in Migratory Aesthetics, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 23–36.
Bal, M. and Hernández-Navarro, M. Á. (2011), Art and Visibility in Migratory Culture Conflict, Resistance and Agency, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.
Baracco, L. (2015), ‘Reimagining Europe’s borderlands: The social and cultural impact of undocumented migrants on Lampedusa’, Italian Studies, Special issue, 70:4.
Bauman, Z. (2004), Wasted Lives, Modernity and its Outcasts, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Cuttitta, P. (2014), ‘Borderizing the island setting and narratives of the Lampedusa “border play”‘, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 13:2, pp. 196–219.
Genova, N. De (2005), Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and ‘Illegality’ in Mexican Chicago, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Mazzara, F. (2015), ‘Spaces of visibility for the migrant of Lampedusa: The counter narrative of the aesthetics discourse’, Italian Studies, 70:4, pp. 449–64.
Ponzanesi, S. (2016), ‘Of shipwrecks and weddings: Borders and mobilities in Europe’, Transnational Cinemas, 7:2, pp. 151–167.
Federica Mazzara has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd. 

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