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Federica Mazzara | November 2016

14th November 2016

performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): Federica, with our conversation we are leaving the realm of live art to enter that of aesthetics. Since 2008, alongside your academic research, you have been writing the blog ‘Moving Borders: The Aesthetics of Migration’; a great resource on cultures of migration. Lately you have also been researching the aesthetics of subversion within migratory contexts. How would you define these two perspectives on aesthetics and their relation within your work?

Federica Mazzara: The two things are not separated, rather the contrary. I created the blog ‘Moving Borders. The Aesthetics of Migration’ (that I have recently renamed ‘Moving Borders. Migration and The Aesthetics of Subversion’) during my time as a post-doctoral fellow at UCL (2007-2009), as a way to keep track of the numerous initiatives, including my own, revolving around migration and cultural expression, happening almost on a daily basis in the UK and in other geographical spaces. I realized this was a vibrant field and I needed a way to record and share scattered thoughts about the importance of artistic forms in relation to the pressing phenomenon of migration. What I started gathering is that there was an alternative way to look at what is commonly framed as a ‘crisis’ and especially as a political and economical matter. Back then, I noticed migration was actually becoming a source of inspiration for amazing thinkers, artists and activists who were in search of alternative discourses, narratives and representations around this controversial issue. This is how I encountered the concept of ‘migratory aesthetics’ by Mieke Bal, a visual cultural scholar I had admired for years. Bal recognizes that aesthetics is a realm where action is possible and can have effects, and this is especially true in migratory contexts, where aesthetics has the power to promote a process of subjectification of the migrants’ (and refugees) experience, who should not be nameless, faceless bodies to be observed, but subjects with voices, faces and stories to be told. The idea here is that art has a potential that mainstream discourses do not have, which is ‘to open up the possible visibility of situations, issues, events and people and to leave it to its viewers or readers to enact that visibility; to answer that call by seeing’[1].  In 2008, I hosted Mieke Bal’s installation ‘Nothing is Missing’ at UCL, that translates this abstract concept into art practice. That was a great experience for me as a scholar interested in how to frame differently and dismantle the current (un-)representation of the migrants’ experience. My idea of ‘aesthetics of subversion’ is directly connected to this early stage of my research. I am now using this expression to name a series of increasingly more challenging acts of subversion that blend art, activism and politics. In particular, I apply this concept to the controversial space of Lampedusa.


Dr. Federica Mazzara

performingborders (Alessandra): During the Summer you have been curating a special issue of ‘Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture’ on the Lampedusa Island (by the way thanks for inviting me to review Ila Sheren’s ‘Portable Borders’!): ‘Lampedusa: Cultural and Artistic Spaces for Migrant Voices’.  How have you made the migrants’ voices louder and heard in this issue?

Federica: This issue is a direct product of my interest in the aesthetics of subversion in relation to Lampedusa. It brings together a variegated group of people who include academics, activists, filmmakers, and artists, some of whom have personally experienced the journey in one of the ‘boats of death’ used to cross the Sicilian Channel, in the attempt to reach Lampedusa and thereby Europe. 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 the stage of a 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.

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, depending on the framework applied, respectively the securitarian or humanitarian one. The contributors to this issue include activist and filmmaker Ilaria Vecchi, who is part of a local Lampedusa collective called Askavusa; Valentina Zagaria, anthropologist and theatre director, author of Miraculi, a play about Lampedusa based on collective ethnographic research on the island; Alessandro Triulzi, Gianluca Gatta, Dagmawi Yimer, Zakaria Mohamed Ali and Mahamed Aman, all members – with different roles – of the Archivio Memorie Migranti (Archive of Migrant Memories) based in Rome, the most important hub in Italy that promote migrants: their self-narration and representation; Gabriella Ghermandi, a writer and performer 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 and Maya Ramsay, a London-based artist with a sophisticated view on the issues of migration, death and invisibility.

performingborders (Alessandra): Lately you have been quite vocal against both the label ‘crisis’ and of a specific view of refugees seen as faceless mass that has been propagated both by media and the cultural sector. Here I’m thinking as an example of your review of the multi-awarded documentary ‘Fuocoammare’ by Gianfranco Rosi. Would you mind to tell us a bit more about this view and what you think art should do to create a counter narrative?

Federica: Along with several other scholars, who have voiced their resistance towards the label ‘crisis’ to define the current global migratory passage (I am here thinking, among others, of Nicholas De Genova, Martina Tazzioli, Maurice Stierl, Charles Heller etc. Read their collective analysis of the problematic word ‘Crisis’ and its critical implications here), I strongly dislike this expression. We are not facing a ‘migrant crisis’, rather the crisis of the EU management of the peoples’ right to move and escape. I believe we need to contrast and oppose this misrepresentation of the issue of moving across borders, and I believe that art has the potential to subvert this way of thinking by exposing the viewers to commonly hidden perspectives, by allowing them to see through different lenses. This is why I do not like Rosi’s interpretation of the Lampedusa ‘crisis’.  Despite all the international praise received, Rosi’s ‘documentary’ (?) limits itself to dragging the viewer into feelings of compassion and pity through a spectacle of suffering that locates the migrants – and to some extend also the locals – in spaces of invisibility they commonly inhabit in all mainstream representations, failing to encourage a more sophisticated understanding of the issue of immigration into Lampedusa and Europe. 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 exclusively 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 I stated in the review of the film I wrote for my blog, I think Rosi, as an intellectual who decides to engage with a pressing issue such as Lampedusa and migration, cannot limit himself to producing a poetic and sentimental film that asks the viewer to ‘stay human’. This is NOT what we need, not anymore! We have had enough of sentimentalism and the humanitarian approach is not helping us understanding the real implications of this cruel and complicated story where we are all involved. We need to dismantle the paradox of a militarised/humanitarian travesty that has chosen Lampedusa as its ideal stage of a made up crisis. Why are these people escaping? Why are we not making their passage safe, while at the same time spending millions in order to rescue them from the perils of this very passage? Why not showing Lampedusa for what it is: the centre of a border spectacle about which the inhabitants are very aware; people who are resisting the travesty, who are concerned and reject the growing militarisation of their land, people who are tired of the politicians and celebrities parading on the island, inhabitants who do not want a Nobel prize for peace. Lampedusans want instead the EU to come to terms with its responsibility about a crisis that it has fabricated and to let the island deal with its old problems: lack of a proper hospital and playgrounds, run-down schools, disappearance of fishing etc. But all this has no voice in Rosi’s ‘documentary’ (

Rosi’s FILM (better calling it for what it is) scares me, or better what scares me is the unanimous praise for his film. It is a symptom of the fact that we are stuck in a close-minded and biased view, where migrants, in the best scenario, can only occupy the stage as victims to be rescued, while we, the ‘rescuers’, can be reassured that our humanitarian ethos is preserved.


Porto M: Display of migrants’ objects. Credits: Federica Mazzara

performingborders (Alessandra): Going back to the concept of performativity, in your research about the Lampedusa-based Askavusa collective and their Porto M project you talk about memory, anti-institutionalism and the museum as a space that redefine ‘practices of representation by performing an aesthetics of subversion that prioritizes the performative dimension of the memorial event’[2]. Please, tell us more about this project and in what way the performative encounters refugees’ memories in it.

Federica: Porto M is an interesting space created by the local Lampedusan collective Askavusa, used mostly – but not only – for displaying objects lost by migrants and refugees, or taken away from them, which they recovered from the ‘boats of death’ abandoned in the island’s landfills. The first objects were found in 2005. Taking inspiration from the work of Iain Chambers, Lidia Curti and their team of scholars, I believe that spaces of memorialisation that link to migration, ‘do not – to use Chambers’ words – so much conserve and transmit memory as produce and elaborate it’[3].

In Porto M [‘Harbor M’] – where M stands for many different things according to their founders, including Mediterraneo (Mediterranean), Migrazione (Migration) Militarizzazione (Miltarization),  Mare (Sea), Memoria (Memory), Miscuglio (Mixing) and Mobilitazione (Mobilisation)], the objects are displayed quite randomly and relatively free from any attempt to define their story, belonging or function (see image). No labels, no cases are used to ‘protect’ them, to fix them in an ordered space and time. Objects are there as witnesses of an incomplete past, as mementos of a journey, where Lampedusa is more than a simple destination, it is a place that participates in and shares the marginality and displacement experienced by the migrants and refugees. The ‘energy released’ by the objects is, according to the collective, impossible to define and fix and therefore it must interrupt any logic of archiving. The objects talk back to different viewers in different ways. Porto M has the potential to subvert traditional ways of preserving memory around migration by prioritizing the ‘performative dimension of the memorial event’, to use Curti’s words, although issues of preservation still need to be addressed by the collective.

As part of this performative dimension of Porto M, I am particularly interested in the act of recycling the ‘wasted’ migrants’ objects that characterises the artistic approach of Giacomo Sferlazzo, member of the Askavusa collective. The objects here provide the raw material for artworks that become the symbol of what I have previously defined as an ‘aesthetics of subversion’. (see image above)

I am currently organizing an exhibition in partnership with Counterpoint Arts and artist Maya Ramsay which will include Sferlazzo’s artworks together with other art and video projects challenging and subverting the common narrative about the ‘migrant crisis’. We aim at launching the exhibition during the next UK Refugees Week (19-25 June 2017). Stay tuned!


Ethiopian director Dagmawi Yimer shooting his short documentary ‘Soltanto il Mare’ (‘Nothing but the Sea’). Credits: Archivio Memorie Migranti.

performingborders (Alessandra): Borders, frontiers, boundaries and marginality. In your article ‘Objects, debris and memory of the Mediterranean passage: Porto M in Lampedusa’ you define margins as a ‘space where it is possible to perform a certain form of resistance’. In what way do you think margins can become a site of production of cultural knowledge? How do you think a different approach to borders can contribute to overcome what you call the ‘otherisation’ of the refugees in the contemporary European context?

Federica: As the human geographer Nicholas De Genova has often stated: “migration exists because of borders, otherwise we would call it simply moving”. This way of looking at borders has informed all my research on issues of migration and representation. People do not cross borders, it’s the borders who cross them. Borders are porous, portable, they move constantly and migrants and refugees show on a daily basis that the manufacturing of virtual obstacles has lots of flaws: no matter how many new borders the anti-migration advocates build, people will still move, cross and dismantle them. This is also how borders become places of resistance, places where to perform their struggle, their agency and power to subvert any possible attempt to irregularize their passages. In this context, I think aesthetics plays a crucial role in revealing and disclosing the paradox of borders. Lampedusa is an incredibly interesting borderscape where two very different and incompatible dimensions coexist: migrants/refugees on the one hand and tourists on the other, the undesired and the desired. A highly militarised space where the Navy is present, on the one hand, to patrol our borders and protect us from the ‘invasion’ of migrants/refugees, and on the other to rescue them from the perils of the Sea and smugglers. Isn’t this a paradox? Despite that, we accept it as a normal, inevitable cause/effect that we rarely, if ever, challenge. A different approach to borders would therefore imply, I think, a disclosure of all paradoxes and contradictions that characterise the governmental and media approach to this phenomenon. Even better if this is voiced by those who have undertake the journey themselves, the migrants/refugees who manage to talk back once they are given the possibility. This is the case of filmmaker Dagmawi Yimer from Ethiopia and journalist Zakaria Mohamed Ali from Somalia, two asylum seekers who experienced the desperate crossing of the Sicilian Channel and who reached Lampedusa, an island of which thy saw very little back then, apart from the dock where they disembarked and the centre where they were held for months. Once gained the right to tell their stories, they both decided to do so by using the documentary art, and both chose to go back, as free men, to the island of Lampedusa, the borderland of their rescue, to testify of how they see the island and to reveal a series of paradoxes that Rosi, for instance, failed to address. The two documentaries (Yimer’s ‘Nothing but the Sea’ and Mohamed Ali’s ‘To Whom it May Concern’) should be watched by all those who think that Rosi has created a masterpiece deserving an Oscar. You won’t find any voyeurism on migrants’ corpses or beautification of the military apparatus in these works, if you want to see this you need to watch Rosi’s work; what you’ll see is ‘only’ the faces (and voices) of the ‘undesired’ others and their attempt to come to terms with a place for which they have mixed feelings, a place that saved their lives, but also took away their dignity as individuals with stories, dreams and hopes, although there have been various initiatives within the island to favour a different visibility of migrants’ subjectivities.

These documentaries are examples of what I consider subversive political acts. In the attempt to express dissent, aesthetics becomes political, contributing to what Rancière (another source of inspiration for my work) calls ‘the distribution of the sensible’, where those who are commonly invisible take the time to reconfigure spaces and times, places and identities: “Politics occurs when those who ‘have no’ time take the time necessary to front up as inhabitants of a common space and demonstrate that their mouths really do emit speech capable of making pronouncement on the common, which cannot be reduced to voices signalling pain”[4].

It’s in this way, I think, that art can help us dissolving the most important borders…the mental ones.

performingborders (Alessandra): Finally, tell us more about the direction of your research in the future and where we can meet you to know more about it.

Federica: I have been working on a monograph on Lampedusa, “Re-imagining Lampedusa: Migration from the Border Spectacle to the Aesthetics of Subversion” that I hope I will be able to conclude in a year’s time. It will be published with Peter Lang and will collect all my recent work on the issue of migration, aesthetics and Lampedusa. The exhibition in June, as mentioned before, will be my next important project. I will keep on posting on my blog and of course I will continue attending all your amazing events, Ale! So you can meet me there.

[1] Mieke Bal, Miguel Á Hernández-Navarro (eds.), Art and Visibility in Migratory Culture Conflict, Resistance and Agency, (Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2011), p. 9.
[2] F. Mazzara, Objects, debris and memory of the Mediterranean passage: Porto M in Lampedusa in G. Proglio and L. Odasso (eds), Border Lampedusa. Subjectivity, visibility and memory in stories of sea and land, Palgrave 2017 (forthcoming).
[3] Iain Chambers, “The Museum of Migrating Modernities,” in Cultural Memories, Migrating Modernities and Museum Practoces, ed. Beatrice Ferrara (Milan: Politecnico di Milano, 2012), 23.
[4]  Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontent (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), pp. 24-25.

Federica Mazzara is Senior Lecturer in Intercultural Communication at the University of Westminster. Her research revolves around migration in relation to cultural expression, with a focus on visual art. She is currently writing a book for Peter Lang on Lampedusa and the aesthetics of subversion. She has previously published on the literature of migration and on the relationship between literature and painting. Her recent publication include: ‘Spaces of Visibility for the Migrants of Lampedusa’, in L. Baracco (ed.), ‘Re-imagining Europe’s Borderlands: The Social and Cultural Impact of Undocumented Migrants on Lampedusa’. Italian Studies. 70: 4 (2015) 449-464; ‘Performing a Postmigration Cinema in Italy. Corazones de Mujer by K. Kosoof’. Modern Italy, 18.1 (Jan. 2013), 41-53;  “Subverting the Narratives of the Lampedusa Borderscape.” Special issue. Crossings. Journal of Migration and Culture 7:2 (2016 forthcoming). This is a Special issue edited by Federica.

Featured image credits: Giacomo Sferlazzo, Con gli oggetti dei migranti (With the migrants’objects). Credits: the artist

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