by Tom Green
Inspired by her participation in the Platforma Festival Conference in Leicester last year, Valentina Zagaria convened an event in Paris on 10 January 2016. Bringing together artists who have worked in Lampedusa, Calais and Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia, it was a great opportunity to explore common themes and experiences. It was also a chance to present this work to a primarily French audience of students, artists, activists and members of the public.
The first presentation, by the photographer Alessia Capasso, explored the history of her work on Lampedusa since 2011 on a project called Lampedusa Odyssey. This was a strong reminder that the history of what the media has called the “migrant/refugee crisis” of 2015 can be traced much further back. As Alessia explains:
“A plot of stories determined by International historic moments (war, revolutions, famine, persecutions, international agreements) lands on the little island in an incessant cycle. Lampedusa awaits. It rescues its temporary guests and, sometimes, it becomes a prison. The first of the so called ‘Fortress Europe’. The cycle only stops when the odyssey of people pursuing a better future becomes tragedy. The grievous one occurred the 3rd October 2013, when 366 Eritreans lost their lives near Lampedusa coasts when their boat suddenly capsized. The sea, when it does not save you, swallows you.”
Though she confessed to doubts about the worth of her photography in the face of problems of such a scale, her work continues with a collective of activists and volunteers called Askavusa campaigning for the rights of refugees and migrants including through artistic projects like the Lampedusa In Festival.
The project presented by Théâtre Senza also took place on Lampedusa.
Their play Miraculi was the culmination of three years of research and development carried out by director and writer Valentina Zagaria. The company formed around this project, which involved the team doing a residency in Lampedusa in September 2013. During this period they gathered the memories, opinions and stories of the people who live on the island and of those who pass through. By playing with languages and movement, Théâtre Senza aimed to bring pieces of the island together, in an exploration of bigger questions of belonging, responsibility, and humanity.
The project was not about finding answers, they explained, but exploring the issues through the process of research, creation and performance.
After a discussion with the audience about the ethical issues involved in doing photography and theatre in/on/about Lampedusa, Antonino Maggiore’s film Lampedusa – October 3, 2013 – the Days of the Tragedy was screened. The film was shot in Lampedusa in the days following the 3rd of October 2013 shipwreck, during which almost 400 people drowned just a few nautical miles from Lampedusa. The documentary serves as a testimony to the fact that several boats had passed by the boat in distress without stopping and providing aid to its passengers, and denounces the lack of official investigations by the Italian government.
James from Calais Migrant Solidarity outlined the appalling conditions endured by some 6,000 people in what is known as the Jungle, an unofficial refugee camp on the outskirts of the city.
Tory Davidson then explained how Good Chance Theatre had come to be set up in the camp, founded by two British playwrights in October 2015 and housed in what had become known as “the dome”. Their aim, she said, was to give people a place to do a variety of activities that took them away from the everyday difficulties, frustrations and hardship of life in the Jungle – offering everything from karate classes to music, mask-making, theatre workshops and performances.
“Good Chance is place for people to come together, irrespective of who they are or where they come from. Somewhere they will always be welcome, warm and safe. A space for them to tell their stories however they want, to express themselves and their situations, or simply to escape and have some fun.”
The difficulties of life and work in the Jungle were made abundantly clear by Tory and her fellow volunteer Darla, and both explained how they were constantly questioning how best to continue the work and meet the needs of the Jungle residents.
Art Refuge UK are working in Calais supporting psychological wellbeing and recovery through art therapy and safe art making. Art therapist Naomi Press explained their approach, with a variety of materials being used in a structured environment to enable non-verbal expression. They are also now working in Dunkirk, where a new informal camp has recently grown. There are foue main components to the work: psychosocial group art therapy; targeted trauma treatment; an outreach psychosocial and individual art therapy provision across the camp for harder to engage communities; and. training, support and skill sharing sessions for staff of Medecins du Monde to strengthen resilience and understanding of mental health. Medecins du Monde estimate that around 90% of the camps residents are living with a mental health condition.
The last session of the day focused on the situation of migrants and refugees in North Africa. For the organisers of the event it was important to open up the discussion on the ways in which Europe’s border extends to African countries as well, and how artists on the other side of the Mediterranean have responded to it.
Wael Garnaoui, one of the founders of Tunisian association Psychologues Solidaires (Solidary Psychologists), set out the background to Tunisia as a country where the frontiers of Europe have been exported. Wael talked about his work as a psychologist with refugees in Choucha camp in 2011, after civil war broke out in Libya, and with Tunisian families of missing migrants.
Discussion with the audience centred on European attempts to outsource its border policing to North African countries, and on the difficult political situation in Tunisia. The current state of emergency is making it harder and harder for artists to express themselves freely, and work permits and refugee status papers are not as of yet legally obtainable in Tunisia, making it an unsafe country for those seeking asylum.
Kimbal Bumstead’s film “The Horizon is Far Away” was screened – a short abstract documentary about a group of rejected asylum seekers who continue to live in the remains of the officially ‘closed’ Choucha refugee camp on the Tunisian/Libyan border.
Finally there was a screening of the film “Boza” by Walid Fellah, about the situation of refugees in Choucha camp, and of those living in the forests near the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, in Morocco. The film also documents migrant protests across Europe, linking people’s journeys with their political engagements.
A trailer for the film is below:
Commenting after the event, Valentina Zagaria said:
“With the other members of Théâtre Senza, we decided to organise a day of discussions about artistic engagements at Europe’s borders because we felt it necessary to think through the role of the arts in challenging mainstream discourses on migration.
“We had just done a week run of our show about Lampedusa, Miraculi, in Paris, and wanted to engage our audience in debating with us the goals of artistic projects like ours. We thought of bringing together artists, theatre and video makers, and photographers who are trying to intertwine academic and artistic disciplines with concrete personal investment in the realities they are working on. Being able to discuss the problems and ethical questions brought up by our work with the public was very important, as it allowed for a different kind of sharing of experiences and collective reflection to take place, and also allowed the audience to feedback their opinions and ideas to us.
“In the future we would like to bring Miraculi to Tunisia, where I currently live, and hope to continue to organise events such as this one to go alongside our theatre work, so as to critically engage with how stories about migration are being told.”
For Platforma, the event was a chance to continue conversations around extending our model as discussed at the Platforma International in Leicester last November. Some great new contacts were made and we look forward to following them up to explore future collaborations.
Tom Green is the Project Manager for Platforma, at Counterpoints Arts