Arts Activism in the Mediterranean
From the Series: Art and Ethnographic Forms in Dark Times
“You were lucky you were born after everything had passed.” Yosef said these words to an audience of Italian arts professionals and students who were taking in his dramatic monologue that recounted his journey to Europe. Yosef was an Eritrean refugee who performed with the group Cantieri Meticci,1 an artist collective in Bologna, Italy, composed of an international ensemble cast that performed across the city at universities, schools, and peripheral urban spaces, such as refugee reception centers. Many of the performers who belonged to the group were recent refugees. I first encountered the group in 2015. I was in Bologna to study intergenerational conflict, social memory, and refugeehood among Eritrean refugees during the height of the “migration crisis” in Italy. Eritreans are one of the largest groups to transit through the Central Mediterranean, the most dangerous migrant route in the world. Eritrea was also Italy’s colonia primogenita, its first-born colony. Yet much of the Italian colonial past for both Eritreans and Italians registers solely in private, familial memory and features little in public discussions around the crisis. For these reasons, I was drawn toward reading the migration crisis through a postcolonial and de-colonial lens.
The statement “everything had passed” indexed that there was a present that young refugees like Yosef occupied that was free of illegitimate violence. However, Yosef’s self-narration also worked to dispel the idea that there was an “after” to violence, an after predicated upon Eritrean national sovereignty. For many Eritreans, the violence of the thirty-year nationalist war between Ethiopia and various Eritrean guerilla groups defined not only their political subjectivities but also their personhood (Redeker Hepner 2009; Bernal 2014, 2017; Riggan 2016). Netzanet, or freedom from colonial and other forms of political violence, was often elided with having arrived at statehood. Instead, violence didn’t end with national sovereignty and continues to shape this post-nationalist generation in Eritrea, their country of origin, and in various countries of transit and settlement. Moreover, the pervasive and diffuse nature of violence made it difficult to imagine what political forms could even begin to address the crisis of Eritrea’s refugees. Yet Yosef’s performances in Italy and across Europe, worked to link the very materiality of violence and his embodied experiences into a shared critical consciousness that could potentially reshape present realities.
I knew the contours of Yosef’s story well. It began with his grandfather, an askaro, an African soldier of Italian East Africa sent to fight in Libya. Yosef then proceeded to tell the story of his parents. They were tegadelti, Eritrean guerilla soldiers who liberated the country from Ethiopian rule. He would end his story by saying that he was lucky to have arrived in Italy, following a dangerous and difficult journey across the Sahara and Mediterranean, but that he couldn’t rejoice in his luck as his brothers were still stuck in detention in Libya.
His on-stage performance was brusque; his words in Italian punctuated the air in sharp staccatos. Normally, in similar performances Yosef had done, this narration of his journey would be framed by poetic interludes and metaphors that emphasized a loss of control; the violence that he encountered in his journey to Europe would evoke images of a falling man, a descent into nonbeing that neither words nor images could fully convey. At this particular performance, though, Yosef told his story without adornment. I looked around at the audience, which numbered over two hundred people assembled in a repurposed university cafeteria. They were inattentive and consumed with their cell phones. When he finished with his performance, Yosef expressed to me how tired he was. I couldn’t explain why, in Yosef’s words, they didn’t seem to care, but I suspected that the radical exploitation and suffering Yosef described was at odds with the general atmosphere of the event that was meant to highlight the arts sector as part of a city development program. He still had a few other performances scheduled at universities, community centers, and high schools—alongside his paid work for the week.
Yosef ended his performances by emphasizing the lives of those left behind, those who drowned in the Mediterranean or had been forgotten in detention centers or on the streets of European cities. Yosef usually ended his story on this weighty note—he could not forget others. While his performances for Italian audiences emphasized the ongoing violence young Eritreans and Africans faced, Yosef would also spend evenings recording video messages urging young Eritreans across the diaspora, whether in Europe, Libya, or Sudan, to “hold hope.” Tesfa hazu, “to hold hope” in Tigrinya, the majority language of Eritrea, implied that hope was a thing in the world, not easily reducible to a form of expectancy but an embodied action. Hope was a thing to be shared—whether that was through practices of care or through forms of artistic practices that countered cultures of structural forgetting, however freighted, with groups like Cantieri Meticci. This was not a hope founded on brash optimism or a willful blindness to the challenges that refugees like him faced. Instead, it was meant to shore up a sense of communal life out of the anomie of camp life or the lives lived under various integration and border externalization mechanisms that dispersed Eritrean refugees across not only the European continent but also across much of Africa and the Middle East.
Hope, more broadly, also signifies that in an undetermined time, latent possibilities could come to be. For Ernest Bloch (1996), an often-forgotten figure of the Frankfurt School, hope was the very foundation for the striving that takes place in everyday life. Writing against a secularized pessimism in Marxist thought and against Freudian theories of repression, Bloch understood artistic practice, dreams, and play as the terrain on which human beings realize the utopian in the not-yet-conscious. For Bloch, the past and individual and collective forms of remembering are the dormant material for which a nondeterministic future is possible; the future is process built, on a daily basis, through human action in which what comes next is not solely determined by the past, but rather builds off of it in an open and creative manner.
For Eritrean activists whose lives were formed in the aftermath of Marxist, post-colonial, revolutionary nationalisms, politics, instead, takes on an intimate, communal, and horizontal form as institutions like the state and the refugee regime fail to address the needs of recent refugees. Moreover, for many activists, recognition as refugees is not enough. As one of my other interlocutors reminded me during a public reading of Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” I couldn’t stay too sure that my American passport would protect me from having to take refuge somewhere else one day. He wanted to alert me to the instability of all political formations. In a moment marked by increasing authoritarianism, impunity for state crimes, and a marked decrease in public solidarity for the displaced, a decolonial figure of the refugee would mean an acknowledgement of our own shared vulnerability, the radical contingency of lives, and an end to the fiction of nation-states. It would also, more radically, portend the end of the refugee.
1. Cantieri Meticci translates to “a mixed construction.” Meticcio, nevertheless, is a freighted term that indexes both a Mediterranean-ism based on conviviality and mixed-ness that evades larger questions of racial formation in the Mediterranean and also references the legal designation of mixed-race children in Africa Orientale Italiana—Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia.
Bernal, Victoria. 2014. The Nation as Network: Diaspora, Cyberspace and Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 2017. “Diaspora and the Afterlife of Violence: Eritrean National Narratives and What Goes without Saying.” American Anthropologist 119, no. 1: 23–34.
Bloch, Ernest. 1996. The Principle of Hope. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Redeker Hepner, Tricia. 2009. Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Riggan, Jennifer. 2016. The Struggling State: Nationalism, Mass Militarization, and the Education of Eritrea. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.