AUGUSTA, Italy — The wreckage of a boat on which hundreds of migrants died when it capsized and sank off the coast of Libya — one of the deadliest shipwrecks in recent Mediterranean history — is going on display at the 58th Venice Biennale.
The fishing vessel sank on April 19, 2015 after colliding with a Portuguese vessel that had come to its aid. Twenty-eight people were rescued. Only 24 bodies were recovered in the area. The Italian Navy estimates 800 people died, many trapped inside behind locked doors.
Its wreck was recovered in June 2016 by the Italian Navy at a dept of over 1,200 feet. After some legal and bureaucratic wrangling, it will be exhibited in the Venice Arsenale during the biennale — known as the “Olympics of the art world” — as a stark reminder of the tragedy.
A press release from the team of Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel, who masterminded the project — titled “Barca Nostra” (“Our boat”) — calls the boat “a relic of a 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 vessel has become a symbolic object, dedicated not only to the victims of the tragic event in 2015 and the people involved in its recovery, but to our mutual responsibility representing the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks,” it says.
The project involved months of painstaking negotiation with the Italian government.
“It has been very complicated to organize. We had to overcome various bureaucratic problems. The ministries we contacted all said that they were not competent (to deal with) the wreck. The project is entirely financed by private sponsors,” Giovanni Angileri, chief of staff of the Sicilian cultural heritage department, told CNN.
After its recovery, the boat was towed to port at the NATO naval base of Melilli near Augusta, Sicily, for the removal and identification of hundreds of bodies so they could have a proper burial.
Giovanna Perrotta, a special government commissioner who was responsible for identifying the victims of the shipwreck, told CNN they cataloged 528 corpses, 325 skulls and 28,000 other bones. However, she says they still require more funds to finish identifying the victims.
Among the survivors of the shipwreck was the boat’s captain, who was later sentenced to 18 years in prison for manslaughter.
On April 18, four years after the shipwreck, the boat was released by the Italian authorities to the Sicilian town of Augusta for the “Barca Nostra” project.
After the Venice Biennale, the boat will become an open-air museum in Augusta, where Angileri says it will serve as a “garden of memory.”
“It was a project deeply wanted by the head of the Sicilian cultural heritage department, Professor Sebastiano Tusa, who died in the Ethiopian airline accident,” said Angileri. “The last note he sent me was about the project. It is a very important project, that boat is the symbol both of the human tragedy and of the political crisis that the migrant flow is causing to all of Europe.”
The Venice Biennale runs from May 11 to November 24.