Ritratti meħudin mill-gazzetta fotografika Distant Land, 2012
Take a look at a map of the Mediterranean Sea, and observe its form, its profile, its contours. This is not a Rorschach test, but with a little pareidolic imagination, you may notice that the Mediterranean is the shape of a fetus: two feet crossed between Spain and Morocco, head resting against Egypt and Palestine, umbilical cord leading up to the Italo-Slovenian Alps. The comfort of the womb, a fertile basin, the cradle of civilisation. Now rotate the map 180º, south-up. You may see the shape of a small boat, complete with a low cabin, or a rectangular Pheonician sail. Travel, migration, trade. With the little boat still in mind, bring the map back to its ‘standard’ (yet utterly conventional) north-up orientation. The Mediterranean is also the shape of a corpse, in fetal position, lying at the bottom of the sea. It’s been there for a while, enough to turn as blue as the water that swallowed it whole.
Close to the belly button of this fetus-corpse is the island of Malta, itself shaped like a miniature fish, tail to the north-west, open mouth to the south-east. There’s a saying we use a lot in Malta, about fish reeking from their heads – secrets will always find their way out, guilt will always manifest itself unwittingly. In a small country like Malta, there’s not much use in hiding anything, but she tries anyway. For reasons as much social as geographical, the south-east of the island is where the nation-state has chosen to stash its dirty laundry: industry, the power station, a recycling plant, the freeport. At the very chin of the fish is a remote area called Ħal Far, which literally translates to ‘Ratville’. This is where the Peace Lab and the migrant “tent city” are located. And this is where Marco Scerri has chosen to take his camera, his curiosity, his contemplative yet non-judgmental gaze.
The tents, shipping containers, prefabricated blocks and former airplane hangars of Ħal Far today house hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants, the “darker feather in globalisation’s cap”, as Joe Sacco describes them at the beginning of his graphic story The Unwanted. Across the roundabout, Father Dijonisju Mintoff’s Peace Lab is home to a small group of Africans who, after losing the jobs and rented rooms they had briefly managed to secure after leaving the tents, suddenly found themselves unemployed and without a roof. Among the background noises in both places are the shrieking planes arriving and departing (the airport runway is but a stone’s throw away), the revving motors of go-cart races, the early-morning gunshots of hunters in the fields, wedding celebrations in specially-catered villas only metres down the road. In one photograph, Scerri has kindly captured Ibrahim, getting ready to pray, looking toward the Mecca. South-east, that is. His invisible line of worship must first leap over the nearby freeport, the shipping containers, the passing tankers. Yet Ibrahim is not oil, metals or merchandise, and he’ll be staying put.
I’m no photography buff, but as a profane observer, I can say that Scerri’s choice of black and white photographs far from reduces the thorny realities of migration to a two-colour, two-sided issue. In fact, through the delicate play on light, shade and shadow, Scerri succeeds in further ‘humanising’ the Ħal Far residents, on both the individual and collective levels. I use the verb ‘to humanise’, and I realise what a terrible paradox this entails. How can one humanise the already human? This is perhaps one of the central responsibilities of the contemporary Maltese artist: to help return to migrants the humanity that they would appear to have automatically forfeited as they laid a foot outside the confines of their national maps, or onto the crowded boat that took them across the waves. Scerri’s juxtaposition of these professional and poignantly human photographs with a selection of online reader comments taken from Maltese newspapers by no means exaggerates the contrast: many Maltese, as their counterparts abroad, attempt to mask their hate behind the term “illegal immigrant”, delegitimising the condition, plight and very existence of the migrant, while seemingly legitimising their own racist outlook (or ‘inlook’). Yet the most important part of the story – that is, of the reality – is in the photographs themselves. On the one hand, we may feel the immediacy of our interaction with the photograph, the immediacy of the migrants’ situation; on the other hand, we may muster some sense of the long, prolonged wait for an opportunity to move on, to continue growing, to spread one’s wings.
With that image in mind, take another glance at the profile of the Mediterranean, north-up – this time, your eyes might distinguish a deep-blue bird with a short tail, a long beak, and wings spread wide from Gibraltar to Gaza. And Malta is there, located off the centre of the bird’s chest, perhaps a tiny fishbone piercing its lungs, or a limestone tattoo in its heart.