Four years ago, after a large shipping vessel carrying around 800 migrants sank in the Mediterranean, Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency, waited at a port to meet the few rescued survivors.
The memory of their faces, their wide and shocked eyes and the way the ship looked when it was finally recovered from the sea “will always be with me,” she said. “And now this boat is here in Venice at the Biennale, and it will be seen by the world."
The boat embarked from Libya and sunk after it crashed into a Portuguese vessel that was attempting to help the migrants on board, many of whom were stuck in the boat’s hold, where they drowned.
It was a nightmarish disaster: Hundreds of bodies were later recovered; others never were. The identities of some of those who died on board remain unknown.
A little over a year after it sank, authorities recovered remnants of the ship. And this year, Swiss Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel brought the massive ship to Venice, where it is now on display at the Venice Biennale, the large, contemporary art fair that will probably be visited by hundreds of thousands of people over the next few months. Büchel calls the project “Barca Nostra,” or “Our Boat.”
Displaying the ship, a news release about the project said, “opens up the possibility of actively using the collective shipwreck Barca Nostra as a vehicle of significant sociopolitical, ethical, and historical importance.”
Seeing the boat propped up as part of an art exhibition left Sami with “mixed feelings.” She was in Venice this week for the opening of another exhibit, one organized by UNHCR that features the work of refugee artists.
On Friday, the same day Sami visited the ship in Venice and stood before it, taking in its size and reflecting on those who died when it sunk, another boat carrying migrants capsized in the Mediterranean, this time off the coast of Tunisia. Dozens of people are believed to have died.
“I feel this cannot be considered a relic of the past,” she said of the ship on display in Venice. “Today, a new shipwreck is telling us that that boat is our present.”
The ship’s presence at the biennale came after two tragedies: first, the shipwreck itself, and later, the death of Sebastiano Tusa, an Italian marine archaeologist who was killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi in March, killing everyone on board. Giovanni Angileri, chief of staff of the Sicilian cultural heritage department, told CNN Tusa, who also served as a cultural heritage councilor for Sicily, was passionate about ensuring the boat be displayed to the public, and said that after the biennale, the boat will become an open-air museum in Augusta, Italy.
“The last note [Tusa] sent me was about the project,” Angileri told CNN. “It is a very important project, that boat is the symbol both of the human tragedy and of the political crisis that the migrant flow is causing to all of Europe."
More than a million migrants and refugees reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in 2015. Last year, just more than 116,000 made it, but the rate of death on the journey increased. In 2015, one person died for every 269 who arrived safely on European shores. Last year, one died for every 51 safe arrivals.
The boat’s display in Venice, if even for the purpose of raising awareness about the plight of migrants at sea, left some feeling somewhat uneasy. As Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, put it, “I feel like the lives of those who died here need to be disentangled from this magnificent carnival of visual consumption.”
“I try to do it this way,” he wrote. “As a light rain falls, I put down my umbrella and look up at the underside of the wooden deck and imagine that this is the last thing I will ever see.”