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Visualizing the Black Mediterranean

Michelle Murray

In 2014 at the Black Italia conference at New York University’s Villa La Pietra, postcolonial studies scholar Alessandra DiMaio coined the term “The Black Mediterranean,” which she asserts “focuses on the proximity that exists, and has always existed, between Italy and Africa, separated (...) but also united by the Mediterranean (...) and documented in legends, myths, histories, even in culinary traditions, in visual arts, and religion” (in Raeymaekers, “Racial Geography”). In addition to the implicitly positive connections DiMaio details, as Timothy Raeymaekers asserts, the Black Mediterranean increasingly references not only the crossroads between Africa and Europe geographically and socially apparent in the ocean and in the hybrid cultural forms emerging in these contact zones, but also the exploitation of migrant labor and the marginalization of migrants in European cities. Prior to these important dynamics of existing in and assimilating to life in Europe, “The Black Mediterranean” evokes both the ontology of the liquid border African migrants must traverse to access Europe and the heightened awareness of difference violently policed at increasingly militarized borders. Indeed, in my view, the term "The Black Mediterranean” most clearly implies the ongoing oceanic atrocities that migrants and refugees confront when they embark upon risky journeys in rickety fishing boats known as cayucos or pa ter as. These migratory patterns reflect the extent to which nation-states retain their sovereignty by preventing foreign entry, and capitalism avails itself of cheap, vulnerable laborers in the interest of profits.

This chapter combines an analysis of race and racialization evident in the term “Black” with a focus on oceanic studies to “think with the water” as Kerry Bystrom and Isabel Hofmeyr suggest in their insightful thoughts on the oceanic turn in cultural studies. For this study, “hydro-colonialism,” a term that expresses the extent to which humans colonize by means of water; colonize the water; and create water colonies, such as a penal island, encapsulates the contributions of oceanic studies (1,3).1 Moving towards a Black Mediterranean entails both acknowledging and “pushing against an entrenched colonial mapping of the oceans and its cultural legacies in supposedly postcolonial times” (Bystrom and Hofmeyr 4). Thinking about race and coloniality - the ongoing significance of colonialism in the current moment, to the perpetuation of colonial structures2 - through the water, this chapter theorizes visual engagements with the Black Mediterranean through readings of sculptures located near, alongside, and under the sea. My chapter focuses on two monuments: the Barcelona plaza and statute honoring the slave trafficker Antonio López y López and the underwater artwork “La balsa de Lampedusa” located within the Museo Atlántico off the coast of Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands. My theorizing of “The Black Mediterranean” thus is not just a celebration of cultural linkages between parts of southern Europe, the Maghreb, and the Middle East, but a conscientious orientation to examine global, transoceanic connections.

It is undeniable that race and migration are intertwined, visual phenomena. Lyndsey P. Beutin explains:

Racialization and racial identity formation is [sic] a complex social process that, while not based in biology, has been consistently pinned on physical characteristics that stand in for group differentiation. My point in calling race a visual technology is to emphasize that racialization was invented as a socially useful process that serves power; and the visibility of racial difference has been key to how marginalization processes are operationalized.


Seeing blackness and being seen as black is not just a difference in skin color, but, as Martinican psychoanalyst Frantz Fanón reminds us, a corporeal schema that transforms into an epidermal schema rooted in racist and colonial histories that cultivated the terrifying Otherness of black people (84). It is important to point out that Fanon’s theorizing about these tensions emerged from being seen by a white child on a bus, a visual exchange with profound personal and social impact. Fanón writes, “I existed triply: I occupied space. I moved toward the other... and the evanescent other, hostile but not opaque, transparent, not there, disappeared. Nausea...” (84). This quote emphasizes the visuality of race - that is, being seen in a particular fashion - leading to an alienating splitting of the self that culminates in a violent destraction of one’s subjectivity. As Nicole Fleetwood postulates, “Blackness troubles vision in Western discourse. And the troubling affect of blackness becomes heightened when located on certain bodies marked as such” (6). Alessandra Raegno similarly contends that “seeing is seeing as” to describe the racial underpinnings of vision and looking (1; emphasis in original). Hence, even when presented with visual materials about race, both individual and collective divergences in ways of seeing and interpreting race and racism lead to different, frequently problematic conclusions. These are the racial dynamics underlying my theorizing of the sea through critical race theory to better understand the juxtaposed terms “Black” and “Mediterranean.”

The visuality of migrants collectively construed as racialized others is a key issue in southern European nations like Spain where visibly white populations only began to receive immigrants of color from the global South in the late twentieth century. Despite its insularity, Spain was nevertheless integral to Western racialization projects, as George Mariscal argues, with medieval and early modern Spain providing “a large chunk of raw material upon which later forms of

Western racism would be constructed” (10)- Drawing upon the work of Foucault, Mariscal states:

[Discourses about “race” ought not to be assigned to certain ethnic groups who then deploy them against other groups. Rather, “race” is a field of practices and discourses that provides a conceptual repertoire from which specific groups draw in order to consolidate privilege and further their political projects.


Much like Fanón, migrants today must confront a conceptual repertoire around race that precedes their arrival. Monuments engaging the "Black Mediterranean” similarly dialogue with this conceptual repertoire and attempt to challenge naturalized narratives of Europe based on the unquestionable Otherness of racialized and colonized people. As visual engagements with race in the Mediterranean, sculptures and statues inscribe new ways of thinking into the cultural landscape. For Dolores Hayden, “Because the urban landscape stimulates visual memory, it is an important but underutilized resource for public history” (47). Through my readings of monuments that gesture toward race and migration in the Mediterranean, I show the ways in which artists, activists, and individuals enter into a dialogue with race and its visuality to call attention to the ways that blackness, even when it is exploited, marginalized, or oppressed, remains a vital element of Mediterranean society that ought to be seen.

Monumental Mediterranean

The statue of 19th-century negrero (slave trader)3 Antonio López y López(1817-1883, henceforth López) once stood with its back toward the Mediterranean Sea and its concrete gaze focused on Barcelona’s bustling street Via Laietana in a symbolic posture that conveyed his personal trajectory from Spain’s American colonies to the Catalan metropolis. Lopez’s biography remains inextricably linked to the Black Atlantic, chattel slavery in the Americas, and Spain’s colonial and imperial designs. That the Mediterranean forms a thread in the fabric of this narrative is key. The statue’s architects thought it necessary that Lopez's sculpture acknowledge his transoceanic crossings by situating him near the sea from where he would have embarked upon the life voyages that would have transformed him into a shipping magnate and an international impresario enriched through slavery.4 His company would become an international holding that developed both Cuba and the Philippines to fulfill Spain's economic - and nationalist - desires as colonies. As Fanón states, racial alienation is the outcome of both economic processes and an interiorization of inferiority (4). The colony thus serves an economic rationality and gives the colonizing metropole a false sense of superiority. López eventually became the first marquis of Comillas (his birthplace), an honor conferred upon him by King Alfonso XII in 1878; and, in 1884, the statue under discussion was finalized by the leading architects of the day - including the renowned Antoni Gandí - in a plaza that would also bear the slave trader’s name. The plaza and statue were cultural landmarks that served to exalt not just López specifically, but also more broadly operate as a visual celebration of the nationalist ideal of the successful indiano, a Spaniard who amassed tremendous wealth in the European nation’s colonies.

The statue was controversial from its inauguration. As Akiko Tsuchiya points out, the 1885 publication of La vida verdadera de Antonio López [The True Life of Antonio López] by his brother-in-law Francisco Bru Lassús was a devastating portrait that denounced the businessman as a negrero (3). In Bosquexo de! comercio de! esclavo [Outline of the Slave Trade], Spanish abolitionist theologian Blanco White states that taking part in the slave trade made traders monstruous (59). For Lisa Surwillo, White’s treatise undercuts fin-de-siécle racial beliefs in severing external traits from character, soul, or essence (24); hence, like other negreros implicated in antislavery and abolitionist debates, López becomes an ambiguous figure indubitably sullied by his decision to participate in the trafficking of Africans.

The López statue assumed greater political significance in the tense milieu of Republican Spain (1931-1939) and in the ensuing Franco dictatorship (1939— 1975). In August 1936, Catalan anarchists removed the statue, and its pedestal was covered with the black and red flag, a symbol of anarchist Catalonia. In 1944, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975), the statue was restored by Frederic Mares, based on the original model (Tsuchiya 3-4). With this commissioning, the fascist, national Catholic dictatorship made plain its vision of Spain as an imperial power with overseas possessions. During Spain’s Transition to democracy in the 1970s, groups began calling for the monument’s removal yet again because of its colonial and fascist histories.

Tellingly, migrants relocating to Spain from Africa from the late 1980s onward were pivotal to the Mediterranean plaza's eventual transformation. As Mahdis Azarmadi and Roberto D. Hernández indicate, after pressure from numerous immigrant activist organizations “as well as antiracist organizations and civil society groups ... the new municipal government of Barcelona finally agreed to rename the long-disputed Antonio López Plaza” (2). Barcelona's global status as a site that receives African immigrants in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries thus enables a critical reflection on the role Africans and their labor have played in Barcelona, Catalonia, and Spain’s (ongoing) development. As Spain continues to be a desirable destination for migrants who relocate to its cities and depopulated rural areas increasingly lose inhabitants, the nation reconfigures itself around globalized metropolises like Barcelona where migrants and natives coexist, with each group's mosaic of assumptions and cultural identities renegotiated thr ough the realities of migration (Corbalán and Mayock ix-x). This activism evinces the ways that migrants, having embarked upon transoceanic voyages to access Spain, engage with the concept of the Black Mediterranean through their focus on the ways in which coloniality and asymmetrical powerdynamics have sustained Western Europe and its riches, from the early modem era to the present.

In June 2017, the union of African street-sellers gathered the 15,000 signatures necessary to propose to rename the plaza for Idrissa Diallo.5 The campaign Tanquem els CIE (Close the Detention Centers) and other activists joined forces with the union to protest in the plaza and to demand the change on June 17, 2017. I would like to focus on this proposal at length - even if it does not succeed -for its cultural implications. I begin by explaining the brief life of Diallo. On December 5, 2011, Diallo, a Guinean migrant, scaled the border wall in Melilla - a Spanish city located on the northwest coast of Africa - that separates Spain from Morocco. In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, political theorist Wendy Brown interrogates the establishment of rigid, physical borders and the proliferation of walls and barricades to delimit national space. This walling occurs at a moment when national borders and boundaries are increasingly difficult to enforce. Globalization and immigration create tension resulting from the indeterminacy of national space occupied by mobile, foreign bodies. The physical structure of the wall allows for the imagination of a sealed-off community that counters the reality of a weak national border easily penetrated by immigrants. The border wall in Melilla is one such structure that not only signals the bordersecurity animating nationalist defenses of space, but also colonial logics wherein Spain continues to maintain overseas holdings in the Maghreb. Border agents apprehended Diallo in Melilla within 24 hours of his arrival. On December 20, he was transferred to an Immigrant Detention Center in Barcelona where he awaited deportation to Guinea; this circuitous route highlights the illogical measures states take to restrict migration. Two weeks later, on January 5, 2012, the 21-year-old Diallo died of heart failure.

Weeks prior to Diallo’s death, on December 19, 2011, a similar fatality occurred at an Immigrant Detention Center in Madrid, where Samba Martine, a 34-year-old Congolese immigrant, died unexpectedly of meningitis after being detained for 38 days. Like Diallo, Martine had also been transferred from Melilla to Madrid. Artists Daniela Ortiz and Xose Quiroga paid tribute to Samba Martine by holding a procession with her image on October 12, 2012, the Fiesta Nacional de España/El día de la Hispanidad (the National Day of Spain), with stops at the Plaza de Colón, the former residence of Congolose businessman and politican Moisé Tshombe, the Aluche center where Martine was jailed, and the hospital where she died. Tshombe fled the Congo after taking part in the 1961 murder of Patrice Lumumba, a key leader in transforming the Congo from a Belgian colony into a democratic and independent republic. Tshombe’s refugee status in Spain for assassinating an anti-colonial, pan-Africanist, African nationalist leader avers the extent to which the Spanish nation-state participates in and benefits from colonialism, political instability, violent regime change, and economic precariousness in Africa.

Ortiz and Quiroga’s performance, titled “Homenaje a los caídos” (“Homage to the Fallen”), creates important linkages between migration and colonial memory in Spain. Including Martine among the fallen for twenty-first-century Spain forms part of a broader, collective desire to recover historical memory. These processes are manifest in the artwork’s usage of the term caídos ‘fallen’, a word

Diallo protest at the plaza

Figure 21.1 Diallo protest at the plaza.

that conjures up El valle de los caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), a national monument to those who died fighting during Spain’s Civil War. A polemical site, the Valley’s national depiction has changed through Spain’s 2007 Historical Memory Law and in the 2019 removal of Francisco Franco’s remains from the grounds.6 Hence, issues of memory recuperation in Spain would not only connect to the legal demand to unearth the histories of those oppressed during Franco’s dictatorship, but also shed light upon Spain’s colonial legacy.

Coloniality lies at the crux of today’s migratory flows. Luis Martin-Cabrera writes, "Against the representation of migration in the media as a ‘sea,’ ‘invasion,’ or ‘irration eruption” (111-12), it makes sense to resituate these flows as “the repetition of colonial trends, and, on the other hand, the emergence of new dynamics of primitive accumulation of capital on both sides of the Atlantic” (112). Transoceanic flows pivotal to colonization and slavery inform Martin-Cabrera’s interpretation of representations of migrants today, proving the ongoing legacy of colonialism in present-day Europe and suggesting that colonial memory is an issue with which those northern states must grapple. As in 21st-century European laws calling for the removal of fascist, Francoist symbols from the public sphere, addressing colonial memory would involve questioning the commemoration of colonizers like Colón and López through national monuments that unquestioningly honor them. Indeed, critiques of colonial history must also “include attention to the popular or public sphere, where monuments and tourism—among other-forms of remembrances—play a key role in reinforcing the colonial present”

(Azarmadi and Hernández 8). In the case of Spain, “[the] Columbus monument erases the legacy of violence, war and genocide which made colonization possible. In turn, [the] Lopez ... [monument] celebrates the profits of enslavement and continues to erase bodies which the colonial logic deemed disposable” (Azarmadi and Hernández 8). In both the performance artwork and proposal to rename the López Plaza for Diallo juxtapose colonizers and today’s migrants, the African figures become symbols of the migrant crisis in Europe and the enduring significance of Europe’s colonial past.

In both cases, the visuality of race joins up with the visuality of statues and monuments designed to memorialize certain aspects of a shared, national histoiy; and commemoration operates as a strategy to shape national identity, as shown in the responses to the López statue. Critical theorist Andreas Huyssen theorizes the role of statues and public memorials in his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory’. Huyssen connects monuments to nationalist mythmaking, noting that “the search for national monuments first created the deep national past that differentiated a given culture from both its European and its non-European others... the monument came to guarantee origin and stability as well as depth of time and of space in a rapidly changing world that was experienced as transitoiy, uprooting, and unstable” (41). It is unsurprising that in 1884, at a moment of late 19th-century imperial decline, Catalan architects would pay homage to a successful indiano as a nationalist ideal. In the early modern period, both the Americas and extremely wealthy indianos who ventured there were viewed with racial suspicion, with indianos being retyped as Jews (Mariscal 14). In this way, paying homage to López could reflect Foucault’s theories about race in Society Must Be Defended, that is, that societies practice internal racism against themselves, one that consists of a “constant purification,” which becomes a cornerstone of normalization (55). Nationalist narratives represented López, the controversial indiano and negrero, as a hero through monumental myth-making. While racism and xenophobia complicate and distort the visuality of racialized others, as I stated earlier in this chapter, a Diallo Plaza - admittedly a controversial proposal that is unlikely to materialize - would operate as a counter-narrative to monuments dedicated to colonizers. Inaugurating a Diallo Plaza suggests that those oppressed by legacies colonialism and slavery ought to appear in national narratives rather than those who enslaved and oppressed. Memorializing a dead African immigrant like Diallo through a new monument would thus acknowledge the African deaths haunting the Mediterranean, and shed light upon the colonial past that once used racist discourse to control and exploit foreign populations. These dynamics remain evident in the present through biopolitical state procedures that manage and reduce immigrant populations, such as the walling and imprisonment Diallo directly endured during his short lifetime.

Reenvisioning waterways

My aforementioned discussion of the Diallo Plaza as a visual cultural object that relates to the visuality of race in the Black Mediterranean also leads to the question of how monuments honor the dead. I have argued that the replacement of the López statue illuminates the extent to which monuments serve as visual cultural materials and shed light upon Spanish society’s shifting values. While the public square would make the dead visible, my second example problematizes visibility and foregrounds uncertainty and death integral to migrant narratives as a unique artwork located underwater. Jason deCaires Taylor’s 2016 “The Raft of Lampedusa” features migrants huddled in a precarious boat traveling from North Africa to Europe - specifically, Italy’s Pelagie Islands. Every migrant in the sculpture represents an actual person who made the arduous journey across the Mediterranean.7

Taylor found inspiration in the 1819 Théodore Géricault painting “Le Radeau de la Méduse” (The Raft of the Medusa), which depicts survivors of a colonial expedition shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (not far from Lanzarote, the site of the underwater sculpture). The French Royal Navy frigate did not have sufficient lifeboats for those on board; and the ten passengers who survived had spent nearly two weeks adrift at sea in a precarious boat that they built themselves. The colonial basis of “The Raft of the Medusa” is noteworthy. The painting depicts the types of transoceanic voyages that served to impoverish Africa for Europe’s benefit, laying the socioeconomic and nationalist foundations that generate today’s routes wherein African migrants travel to Europe in search of a brighter future. As with the subjects in the 1819 painting, Europe’s migrants endure both coloniality and wreckage in their arduous journeys via rafts across the Mediterranean. “The Raft of Lampedusa” is powerful in suggesting these linkages. As Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott writes, in the absence of monuments, "the sea is history” (364). Iain Chambers argues that

[t]o return to the sea, to a maritime discipline, is to unhook a particular language and its explanations from the chains of authority... In such a prospect emerges a diverse cartography whose continual transformation into a multitude of places enables the resonance and the dissonance disseminated in a Mediterranean modernity to be recorded in the interleaving of historical, cultural, and ecological complexities.


The liquidity and fluidity of the sea creates resonances with past voyages and produces forms of memorialization, revealing the tremendous complexity of the concept of the Black Mediterranean.

“The Raft of Lampedusa” forms part of the Museo Atlántico located underwater, off the coast of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. Segal explains, “Taylor uses marine-grade cement with pH-neutral concrete that is nontoxic to local wildlife, and over time the statues increase marine biomass by accumulating coral on their surfaces. Each piece has a foundation plate that can be drilled and anchored to the sea floor” (PBS). So, each statue will transform into a man-made reef capable of enhancing biodiversity as time passes. Along with the museum’s main installation, “Crossing the Rubicon,” which shows individuals walking to a point of no return in a scenario symbolic of climate change, “The Raft of Lampedusa” sculpture also denounces ecological destruction and offers an example of the ways that artists and activists address and attempt to remedy the devastation of nature through their work.

Taylor’s artwork not only examines African migration through the sea-based disaster of the shipwreck, but also looks to the water - the polluted water - that migrants traverse as a key component of the statue’s function. “The Raft of Lampedusa” thus begins an important reconsideration of waterways. Looking to the water is a formulation that diverges from that of the López monument, which looks to the Spanish nation and has his back to the Mediterranean Sea. López left the water rich, effectively having drowned others. Looking to the water not only involves recognizing the human devastation of the ocean, but also admitting that waterways serve as sites of human transit with dire consequences for Africans both in Lopez’s day and now.

For Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Taylor’s underwater sculptures represent the complexities of “sea ontologies” (33). Referring to the Atlantic and the routes of chattel slavery, DeLoughrey contends that the Ocean is “an unmarked grave site ... an oceanic archive that lacks place-based narrative and rimáis for memorialization” (35). Indeed, Taylor’s sculptures dialogue with histories of colonization and the uncertain future in an era of climate trauma. As DeLoughrey puts it,

the sculptures are more temporally complex, suggesting that the ocean as medium can symbolize the simultaneity or even collapse of linear time, reflecting lost lives of the past and memorializing - as an act of anticipatory mourning - the multi-species lives of the future of the Anthropocene.


Engaging with colonial history to comment upon migratory routes and the oceanic pollution plaguing the earth’s waters, it is my contention that “The Raft of Lampedusa” uses the fluidity of the sea to call attention the problematics of memorialization in the Black Mediterranean, in an analogous fashion as the aforementioned debates surrounding the López statue.

“The Raft of Lampedusa” is drowned to represent the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean as migrants risk their lives in pursuit of a European dream. Ingeborg Eliassen reports that according to U.N. estimates, at least 5,096 people died or disappeared at sea while tiying to reach European soil in 2016; this number is an increase from an estimated 3,771 deaths in 2015 and 600 in 2013 (Eliassen). No European authority has officially attempted to count and account for the dead; although the European coast guard Frontex uses satellites to monitor the seas, this information is transmitted to the Eurosur surveillance system for the purposes of reducing migration, preventing border crime, and saving drowning migrants (Eliassen). Hence, despite ample surveillance at the liquid borders of the Mediterranean, there is no actual record of the African lives lost although the EU has the technology to track some of these numbers. In their article critiquing Frontex for operating in a perilous humanitarian borderland that perpetuates policies that contribute to the broader precariousness of human life, Katja Franko Aas and Helene Gundhus argue that “it is precisely through the lack of a ‘will to knowledge’ about migrant mortality that the discrepancy between humanitarian and security considerations becomes most visible” (1, 10). The continent's Mediterranean border tensions signal a broader disengagement with race and racial justice in contemporary, “postcolonial” Europe.

The issues of counting, honoring, and recognizing life resonate with Judith Butler's theories on what constitutes the livable and whose lives become counted and valid as human life (xx). Faced with state refusal to acknowledge migrant and refugee lives and deaths at the southern maritime borders of the Schengen area, artists and activists situated throughout the Southern Mediterranean respond. Some examples of remembrance include a cemetery that reserves part of its space for migrants in Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily. And since 2009, the Spanishbased group A Desalambrar has placed crosses on beaches to acknowledge the immigrant deaths at sea. These makeshift installations and memorials begin to spring up on both land and sea to humanize the dead and to bring collective awareness to the border crisis.

“The Raft of Lampedusa” forms part of a corpus of visual engagements with migration in the Mediterranean. The sculptor states that the work is “a harrowing depiction of the ongoing humanitarian crisis”; yet, its function is not to commemorate the dead, but to call the living to action, “a stark reminder of the collective responsibility [sic] of our now global community” (Jason deCaires Taylor). Much like the Raft of the Medusa before it, “The Raft of Lampedusa” showcases the social ills that permit shipwrecks and the loss of innocent life with the aim of bringing about change. The image of the shipwreck is essential to the installation. The plight of today’s boat people and the precariousness integral to this mode of transportation conjure up memories of chattel slavery and the horrors of the Middle Passage. The drowned vessel in “The raft of Lampedusa” captures analogous dynamics in portraying the worst fate for a boat and its passengers in the Mediterranean.

Arguably the most influential and powerfill theorization of the water has been critical race theorist Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), a study of black transnationalism through historical and philosophical frameworks. The ship is a pivotal element in his work, as well. Building upon the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, Gilroy offers the image of the sailing ship as a “chronotope” that signals several aspects of the Black Atlantic. He states,

I have settled on the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising [sic] symbol for this enterprise and as my starting point. The image of the ship — a living, microcultural, micro-political system in motion — is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons ... Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs.

(Gilroy 4)

Like DiMaio who conceives of the black Mediterranean as a crossroads, Gilroy sees in the black Atlantic a space brimming with cultural possibilities borne out of the initial trauma of the “sailing” slave ships. Those sailing ships that defined Atlantic return, come back again in today's Mediterranean, where African patera is the first step toward a journey that can culminate in exploitation or death.

For Gilroy, “The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation that I want to call the black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through this desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity” (19). I contest this notion. For, despite the ongoing technological advancements in travel and global connectivity, the nation-state retains its symbolic and material power, evidenced in the proliferations of border walls, which serve as both visual/symbolic and concrete reminders of the state violence to which migrant bodies are continually subjugated. Race, furthermore, remains a central element of social hierarchies, especially for African immigrants who continue to be constrained by ethnic distinctions, racism, and xenophobia in Europe. Finally, while Gilroy’s work offers invaluable insights, it simultaneously reveals a surreptitious Anglocentric trend in its reception insofar as theorists and cultural critics largely view global racial histories through the lens of the United States of America and its unique history of chattel slavery, segregation, and civil rights movements. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has called into question the tyranny of hegemonic models in theorizing the Black Diaspora (2), for instance, the primacy of the United States and the Atlantic as the “root (‘route’) through which a distinct theory of movement as modernity is articulated” (Chude-Sokei 741).

Examining “The Raft of Lampedusa” invites the viewer to contemplate what is hidden beneath the surface of the water. From vulnerable drowned humans to contamination and microplastics, the water contains harrowing stories of planetary devastation brought about by globalized capitalism. The transoceanic nature of the installation chips away at the primacy of the Black Atlantic to show the extent to which coerced migrations, slavery, and human trafficking continue to dehumanize certain populations long after the abolition of chattel slavery. The convergent ocean worlds of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean also evince the transnational flows central to theorizing race in a global context beyond the dominant frame of the United States. Charting a black Mediterranean means building upon the work of the black Atlantic and localizing sites of both struggle, solidarity, unfreedom, and freedom emergent from histories of colonialism, migration, and trafficking.


  • 1 For information on Spanish political discourse and debates on penal colonies, see Vialette.
  • 2 For further analyses of coloniality, see the work of Santiago Castro-Gómez and Ramón Grosfoguel, Enrique Dussel, Maria Lugones, Walter Mignolo, and Aníbal Quijano.
  • 3 All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.
  • 4 López was born with scant resources and his fortune was largely amassed through his wife’s dowry; his father-in-law’s influence; and, to a lesser extent, his brothers-in-law’s collaboration. In this way, the slave trader’s fortune also shows the ways that traffic in women benefits men who derive both pleasure and profit from trading in and controlling women’s fives, bodies, and finances.
  • 5 Interestingly, Lamine Sarr, the spokesperson for the union who announced the proposal in 2017, was targeted for deportation less than a year later in November for making counterfeit clothing (Garcia).
  • 6 One of the provisions of Spain’s Historical Memory Law (2007) was the depoliticization of the Valley of the Fallen, which included prohibiting political events there and recognizing Republican and Nationalist soldiers who had fought in the Civil War at this site.
  • 7 See “The Raft of Lampedusa Abdel” for an interview with Abdel, one of the migrants whose life and story inspired the sculpture.
  • 8 Important interventions in cultural studies-oceanic studies include special issues of PMLA (Oceanic Studies, 2010) and Comparative Literature (Oceanic Routes, An ACLA Forum, 2017).

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