Remove Barca Nostra from Venice Biennale

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On 18th April 2015, a fishing boat with over 1000 migrants on board sank between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa. With only 28 survivors, this tragedy proved to be one of the deadliest amidst the endless wave of disasters involving migrants on the Mediterranean sea.

Together with the Sicilian town council of Augusta, the Regional Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity, and the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015 (an initiative to create a garden in Augusta memorialising the tragedy), the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel has brought the wreckage to the 58th Venice Biennale. Titled Barca Nostra (Our Ship), the boat hull is currently being exhibited in the Arsenale which has previously been the venue of the Biennale’s main exhibition.

Art exists to probe, upset and dismantle the status quo. The ongoing deaths of migrants on the Mediterranean sea is a global crisis that many of us seem oblivious to. Barca Nostra, if displayed in a different manner could have played an important role in drawing attention and raising awareness to the crisis. However, there are no signs and labels around the boat. The only information about the significance of the vessel is available in the Biennale catalogue which only a small number of visitors purchase. Lack of information about the boat in the Arsenale reduces the boat, a deathtrap and grave, to a mere object that visitors dine around (there is a cafe near the vessel) and use as a prop for their selfies and photographs. This is grossly disrespectful and insensitive to the victims, their loved ones and indeed Black people as we are reminded of the ceaseless consumption of Black death.

Moreover, the boat being displayed as an "artwork", without any explanatory text by a White male artist, continues the violence of White people appropriating Black bodies and Black death for public spectatorship and consumption. Given the prestige of the Venice Biennale and controversy around the display, Barca Nostra will undoubtedly raise Büchel’s profile but this is owed to the utter capitalisation of Black death.

Lastly, it is unknown whether the survivors, families and friends of the victims and organisations working with or representing African migrants that have undertaken these deadly voyages were consulted during the conception of Barca Nostra. If these groups of people were not involved, the ethics surrounding Barca Nostra are further questionable as those directly affected by the disaster are excluded.

For all the aforementioned reasons, Barca Nostra spectacularly fails to represent “the collective policies and politics that create these kinds of wrecks.” Instead it is a symbol of the disregard, disrespect and devaluation of African and Black life and must be removed from the Biennale immediately.


Photo credit: Stephen Pritchard

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