The Installation of Tragedy and The Ideology of Open Space

Interviewer : Why don’t you draw people in your drawings?

Khalid Abdel Rahman:  I feel like the people I know disappeared.

On April 19, 2015, the Italian navy determined that at least 800  and as many as 1,100 people drowned when a Libyan fishing boat capsized and sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa after a collision with a Portuguese ship. Only 28 survived. Comprised of migrants from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Niger, Syria, Bangladesh among other places, many died trapped behind locked doors in the ship’s hull. The wreckage was recovered in the summer of 2016, and a backlog of human remains still awaits the funding necessary to identify them.

The 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale) is set to open to the public in a couple of days. Running through November 24, this year’s theme is “May You Live In Interesting Times.” The title taken from an English expression associated with a fictitious “Chinese curse” said to bring upon an age of confusion, turmoil, and political crisis. Featuring the work of 79 artists from around the world, one of the Biennale’s most anticipated exhibits is “Barca Nostra” (Our Boat), the project of controversial Swiss-Icelandic artist, Christoph Büchel. “Barca Nostra” being the actual wreckage of the April 15th incident, one of the deadliest shipwrecks and mass drownings in recent history.

The ship is to be exhibited in the Arsenale, historic site of the Venetian Republic’s shipyards. According to the press release, the ship, now project and property of the commune of Augusta, Sicily is characterized as:

” A relic of human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration engaging real and symbolic borders and the (im)possibility of freedom of movement of information and people…” The exhibition is of the ship representing, ” the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks.”

2015 was a deadly year for migrants. More than 2,900 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean into to Europe. Human traffickers, and EU naval policies creating the dangerous route through Libya and the central Mediterranean. 2015 was also the tenth anniversary year  of Hurricane Katrina. A hurricane where nearly 2,000 people, mostly black, lost their lives mostly by drowning. This same year the city council also passed a resolution expressing support in the construction of a replica slave-ship that would theoretically serve as a museum about the Translatlantic Slave Trade. This story was met with mostly with shock and incredulity, and plans seems to have stalled.

In July of 2017, Sudanese visual artist, Khalid Abdel Rahman‘s exhibition “A Disappearance” was hosted by the Arts Council of New Orleans. The two-month showing was co-curated by myself, and cartoonist,  Khalid Albaih, whose own work on Sudan’s ongoing uprising was recently featured during the Venice Biennale’s pre-opening programming. Rahman’s serene, dreamy, soundless, romantic and almost innocent drawings, are not of an abandoned colorful ghost city, but of Khartoum, the capital of The Sudan. In reality, Khartoum is neither as colorful nor as uninhabited as Khalid sees it. Rahman’s pieces, renderings from his own photography are silent but pointed and evocative documentation of his disappearing neighbors. Neighbors that are slowly disappearing, due to either working with or resisting the government  or leaving the country, taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. The brightly sad coloring of these empty neighborhoods of Rahman’s drawings reflect the reality of a disappearing class and people. Like a surreal scene from a memory you saw in a dream.

“I always think of my artwork as an extension of the old local sufi poetic tradition that values the eye of contentment or the good eye that sees beauty in everything, with this concept in my mind I take daily walks to look at my surroundings and take photos and sketches and then I go back to the studio to produce the final result, usually a simple drawing with soft and oil pastels on paper.My goal in this body of work is to celebrate the local and the ordinary and hopefully to inspire those who look at my art to take a careful look  at things around them.”

Challenges to the validity of many traditional museums “acquisitions,” which in many cases can even include human remains, and their sources (often the widespread theft and looting that accompanied colonialism) are growing harder for many institutions to ignore. Challenges, also, to the exclusionary and elitist practices around hiring and artist representation are also increasing and causing many institutions to seek to expand their repertoire beyond what has been traditionally housed behind its four walls. Art that interacts with social justice and marginalized identities is en vogue and in growing demand. Art which interacts with the many human tragedies of our time seem to be particularly in focus. When does art shine a light on injustice, demand public accountability and when does it cross the line into callous exploitation?

How artists engage themselves, society and their work with public space is indeed one of the frontlines of transforming the structures of museums that have made them shrines to violences against entire nations. And so the questions come. What do you see when you see a boat/mass grave exhumed from the sea? A grave of mostly Africans? As a matter of public viewing? At press time this exhibit remains unmarked, no accompanying text points to its inclusion in the Biennale. It is simply there. A very tangible haunt as people look and speculate, investigate or ignore its presence.  According to the UNHCR 1 out of every 3 people have died in the Mediterranean taking the Libyan route in 2019. Speaks to the conclusion that it takes more than sunlight to deconstruct the walls and evils of an institution.