A British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge will tour the Lampedusa cross around the UK, arriving at Derby Museum and Art Gallery on 10th December 2021. Made from the remnants of a boat carrying refugees wrecked near the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the coast of Tunisia, the cross carries poignant messages about kindness, community and the indifference faced by many refugees.
Alongside the cross will be a display of twelve tiny boats from Syrian-born Issam Kourbajʼs series Dark Water, Burning World, made from repurposed bicycle mudguards tightly packed with burnt matches to represent the fragile vessels used by refugees to make their perilous voyages across the Mediterranean. Seeking to evoke the plight of Syrians, these were made by Kourbaj as a response to the ongoing tragedy in Syria. The boats have recently been nominated as the 101st Object in the British Museum and BBC Radio 4’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. A 10th anniversary programme was recently broadcast to reflect on the major issues which have affected the world in the past decade. Inspired by Syrian antiquities depicting sea vessels that date from the 5th century BC, the boats convey the fear and exhaustion of the crossing, and the trepidatious uncertainty of survival. In utilising cheap and discarded materials that might otherwise go to waste as the basis for the artwork, Kourbaj represents the need for refugees to use what they can freely acquire following separation from their homeland, while urging the global community to find value in everything and everyone, no matter how humble their origins.
In October 2013, an overcrowded boat carrying 466 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea caught fire, capsized and sank near Lampedusa’s coast. At that time, there was no official maritime rescue service. 311 lives, fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Europe, were lost. Moved by the plight of survivors whom he met in his church, the island’s carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, made an individual cross for each person. Acting as a mark of the 155 survivors’ salvation from the sea and their hope for the future, the cross also reflects the fate of many migrants. Tuccio also made larger crosses that he gifted as a plea for discussion about community and responsibility – it is in this context that the British Museum acquired this cross in 2015, simply made from two pieces of brightly painted wood fitted together.
The Lampedusa disaster was one of the first examples of the European migrant crisis and the terrible tragedies that have befallen refugees and migrants as they seek to cross from unstable regions in Africa and the Middle East into Europe. It led to operation Mare nostrum – our sea – in 2013, by which the Italian navy rescued 150,000 people from the straits of Sicily. The islanders of Lampedusa did not wait for official authority or funding to rescue those in peril on the sea. They shared resources to rescue, feed, clothe, comfort survivors and bury those washed up on the shore. Their kindness altered their formally idyllic life and challenged them with difficult and unwelcome changes. In this way, the cross invites discussion about the stresses of learning to live cooperatively. It marks an extraordinary moment in European history and stands witness to the kindness of the people of Lampedusa and as a reference to the ongoing migrant plight today.
Engaging audiences in questions of identity, belonging and sharing our world, the display encourages the sharing of stories amongst local communities, including those with migrant experiences of their own.
The tour will touch on the ethical and practical challenges presented by mass movements of people, and on how Europe has recently responded to refugees and migrants. The Spotlight Loan will tour to venues in Manchester, Hastings, Derby, Ipswich, Bristol, Rochester and Dorchester from May 2021 until February 2023 as part of the British Museum’s National Programmes, bringing objects from the Museum to audiences around the UK for free.
Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer says, “The wood of the cross is a reminder of the passage, not only of these vulnerable refugees who staked everything on the boats being able to safely transport them, but of the human beings throughout history who have sought refuge on similar perilous journeys. I hope visitors around the UK will connect with the poignancy of the cross and be able to reflect upon the ongoing disruption, upheaval and hope that it symbolises.”
Tony Butler, Executive Director at Derby Museums, says, “We are honoured to host this British Museum Spotlight Loan here in Derby. Across Derby and the wider region, many organisations collaborate to welcome and provide ongoing support to people fleeing violence, war and persecution. Together they aim to make Derby a welcoming place of safety for all, a city of sanctuary, helping refugees and those seeking asylum feel at home whilst they navigate their new lives and valuing the friendship and many skills they bring. We hope that this exhibition will cause visitors to reflect on the complex and interconnected issues surrounding migration and to remember each person has their own story to tell.”
Curator Jill Cook says, “The Lampedusa Cross reminds us of all the histories that are lost and of the thousands of people who are not otherwise remembered. The wood with its paint blistered by the sun and smelling of salt, sea, and suffering embodies a crisis of our times, as well as hope. The cross invites discussion of the varied reactions to one of the great tragedies of our time. It is an artefact shaped by tragedy that symbolizes those who have nothing and desperately seek to share in a better future. As such, it is touchingly complemented by Issam Koubraj’s little boats.”
Artist Issam Kourbaj says, “Lead was the first material I experimented with when making my boats. I used it for its density, as a response to the many tragedies of sinking boats in the Mediterranean, but also the ancient miniature model ship carrying three goddesses that inspired this piece was made from lead too. Soon after I was drawn to bicycle mudguards, which are designed to protect from the mud, yet sadly many Syrians and many others were not guarded by the flimsy boats, lead-like, that they were so desperate to take to escape the destruction. Spent matches speak about the people of the boats, with burnt parts to reflect the trauma that those women, children and men carry with them, while water-like resin holds these burnt matches together, just as we all bond, hold and support each other in desperate times.”
A British Museum Spotlight Loan Crossings: community and refuge will be on display at Derby Museum and Art Gallery from Friday 10 December 2021 until Sunday 6 March 2022. The exhibition is free of charge with a request to visitors to Give What You Think. Find out more about the exhibition here.
After Derby, the exhibition will head to Ipswich Museum between 11 March – 12 June 2022, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 18 June – 18 September 2022, Rochester Cathedral from 22 September – 27 November 2022 and finishing at Shire Hall in Dorchester from 1 December 2022 – 26 February 2023. Supported by the Dorset Foundation in memory of Harry M Weinrebe.