A mural of faces in different hues of blue, green, red, yellow and white painted by Amnesty. Abandoned boats, on spare ground overlooking the port – three from Libya and two from Tunisia.
A cluster of coastguard boats nestled against the harbour wall, designed to rescue people more easily from the sea. In the distance Guardia di Finanza boats operating for Frontex, Europe’s border control.
Otherwise the harbour is like any other. A ferry from Sicily coming into view. Fisherman repairing their nets. Restaurant owners displaying their menus for the summer season. But there is an anxiety. Will the media coverage of lovely Lampedusa, this small Italian island 70 nautical miles from Tunisia and 120 from Sicily, affect their trade?
“Travellers have always arrived on these shores from Africa,” says Paola my companion and interpreter for the day. “Years ago my stepfather regularly took soup down to newly arrived Tunisians sleeping in the caves.”
Every day Paola teaches maths to a young man who arrived in Italy as an unaccompanied child migrant. The residents of this island have a tradition of welcoming people.
We meet the Askavusa Collettivo (Barefoot Collective) in what used to be a storage area for local fishermen. The doorway of PortoM is covered in painted, weather-beaten, wooden planks taken from abandoned migrants’ boats. Giacomo and Francesca are painting, fixing, cleaning.
We sit on impromptu chairs in their new premises overlooking the port.
“Were you born on the island?”
“No, no,” they laugh.
“So you came to live here as adults?”
“No, no,” they repeat, collapsing into laughter again.
I don’t get the joke. Paola explains. Pregnant mothers leave Lampedusa weeks before giving birth as the last two midwives on the island died decades ago.
“The only babies born on the island are migrants’ children,” says Francesca. “Sometimes because of the stress of getting here.“
Later Paola explains some of these births may be as a result of rape on their long journey from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan or West Africa and often in one of the holding centres in Libya.
“What does the M stand for in PortoM?” I ask.
“M for memory. We choose what we remember and what we forget,” says Giacomo, a singer songwriter known for his songs about Lampedusa. “We want to actively engage with memory as a political act.”
“Or M could be for Mediterranean, migration or militarisation of the island,“ suggests Francesca.
Some believe that the level of radiation, used in surveillance on the island, contributes to the high level of local cancers.
“How did the project start?”
“It was in 2005,” says Giacomo, “I went to the Wasteland, where they take migrants’ boats to be destroyed, and found a box. It was like a treasure trove.”
The box belonged to a priest from Ethiopia. Inside were photos, a bible and letters from a sister who had sent them via another migrant to Libya where the priest stayed before travelling to Italy. With the help of the Archivio delle Memorie Migranti they translated the letters and tracked down the priest. He was alive and well. Safe. A survivor. The priest agreed they could keep the box and its contents but wanted no further involvement.
From then the Collettivo started to collect more objects from the Wasteland. Illegally. Francesca pulls out a few objects from boxes stored in the cave at the back of the building – sodden shoes, a battered Bible, crumpled sheets of the Qur’an. A teet of a baby’ s bottle, a black cloth bag embroidered with the words LOVE on a rabbit’s ear, a rusty cigarette lighter, half of a mobile phone, an orange headscarf with silver edging, cassettes of Arabic songs, cooking pots, tubs of harissa paste and bags of spaghetti. These are just a few of the hundreds of objects they have in storage along with three boats.
“Are you still collecting?” I ask.
“After 2013 we stopped, “ says Giacomo. “It was just too much.”
On the 3 October 2013, just 200 metres away from the port, a boat, carrying over 500 people, sank. Coastguards, fishermen and local people all tried to help but 367 people drowned as many of the migrants could not swim.
“After that we wondered if what we were doing was fair, “ says Francesca.
Askavusa has already displayed the objects in two previous venues in Lampedusa and further afield – in Marseilles, Hamburg and Zurich. Sometimes this has been in mainstream museums such as the Museum of Ethnography in Rome but sometimes in off beat, alternative venues.
“So how are you going to display the objects here?” I ask, looking around at the newly white washed walls.
“It will emerge. We make decisions on a day to day basis,” says Giacomo.“But so people can look at the objects, touch them, smell them. Simply. Next to each other. With the shoes hanging from the ceiling perhaps.”
“And definitely without labels,” adds Francesca. “We can’t speak for the migrants.”
Annalisa arrives, a headband over her dreadlocks, carrying planks of a migrants’ boat.
“Each object is uploaded with energy of the past,” she says. “ They tell many different stories but also one single story.”
“What about photos?” I ask.
“We don’t display them, “ says Francesca.”Out of respect for the migrants.”
“Some are in very bad condition but others, tucked into trouser pockets, are legible. One letter, was translated by a visiting UK Bangladeshi film maker. It was about how to get on with Italian people and cook Italian food,” she laughs.
Another letter was found in a bottle, ‘If you find this consider me your wife.’
“Perhaps we could display more letters and ask visitors to translate them,” suggests Francesca.
“At one stage we thought of having a catalogue,” says Giacomo. “ But when archivists started putting them in plastic bags and numbering them the objects seemed like corpses.“
“Who has come to see the exhibition?”
“People from all backgrounds,” says Giacomo. “Students, migrants, survivors who came to Lampedusa and then left. “
“How have people responded to the objects?”
“People pay almost too much attention to them,” says Giacomo. “They talk about the object instead of listening to it. Emotion is important but so is reflection and understanding.“
“Have any migrants been involved in developing the exhibitions?”
“I once assembled a tea bag and a music cassette in a wooden frame. But a migrant wrote Allah all over it,” says Giacomo. “I was upset at first but then I remembered Duchamp,” he laughs.
Workmen damaged a door by Duchamp when they mistakenly removed it from an exhibition and were prosecuted. Duchamp argued that the damage added value to the object and they were let off.
The migrant who wrote Allah over the object was one of thousands who arrived on the island during the Arab Spring in 2011. Askavusa provided a centre where migrants could get food, clothes and advice. Others on the island helped too. Fisherman gave them food and locals let them sleep in doorways. Now, there are far less migrants on the island. The island’s holding centre accommodates no more than 380 migrants at any one time who, in theory, only stay for up to 3 days before being moved on to other centres. Migrants rescued at sea are now transferred to several ports across Italy.
“PortoM must be an open space for dialogue,” says Giacomo.
“Migrants would be very welcome to develop their own exhibition,” says Francesca.
Giacomo points to the cave at the back of the premises.
“That will be our university. In June a Professor from Amsterdam is coming for a residency to looks at the issue of borders and how the media uses Lampedusa.”
“What is the best thing you have done so far?” I ask.
“That is yet to come?” smiles Giacomo.
We laugh together for the last time as I put some Euros into their box, a paltry sum for their generosity and their time.
As I approach Lampedusa airport I can’t get the image out of my head of 366 coffins lined up on the runway in 2013, cried over by 150 fellow migrants who had survived. One coffin held a mother and her baby.
I feel in my pocket. I have still got the key to the bungalow of the campsite Villaggio La Roccia owned by Andrea, an English woman who has been my impeccable host. I ring her.
“Leave it in the airport bar for the campeggio,” she says.
Where else could I leave a hotel key at the airport bar? Where else would I receive such a welcome? Lampedusa is a beautiful island. Just days before the disaster in 2013 TripAdvisor voted Rabbit Beach, located in the southern part of the island, as the world’s best.
And the food is superb. So I also leave with memories of eating red mullet fillet and broadbean puree, monkfish with pineapple and squid with green peas and a touch of balsamic vinegar, watching the evening sun set the port ablaze.
I catch up on the news. Britain refusing to take more migrants crossing the Mediterranean.