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“Here in Palermo […] there are no migrants. Those who arrive in the city become Palermitans. The declaration ‘I am human’ contained in the Charter of Palermo demands recognition of international mobility as an inviolable human right.”


Leoluca Orlando – Mayor of Palermo, in his introduction to ‘Manifesta 12 Planetary Garden Guidebook.’

(Image: ‘Palermo Procession,’ 2018 by Marinella Senatore.)

The first news bulletin I watch on my return from visiting Manifesta 12 in Parlermo includes an item on the separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S. Mexico border and a report of statements by Italy’s interior minister on his wish to create a census for the country’s Roma population. Both before and after my trip, Italy’s responses to migrant vessels in the Mediterranean (first closing their ports to rescue boats, then threating to impound NGO rescue ships) is never far from the news. These actualities sit in stark contrast to Leoluca Orlando’s ambitions [above] for a borderless world.

We live in perilous times; perilous in particular for people who are non-white, non-western and compelled to travel to seek safety, work or a better life. For people like me, with privilege – born somewhere stable with many advantages – the seemingly constant stream of desolate stories is saddening, anxious-making and paralysing even. It’s easy to feel powerless, to feel a push-pull between watching the bigotry unfold on screen, and turning away and ignoring events that seem impossible to grasp or change.

When in Palermo (thanks to an a-n bursary) and with my i-phone on its last legs (battery conservation required) I revelled in time away from the news-cycle. I was a tourist; there was some frivolity – with art, sun, friends, food and wine. At the same time, what the biennial offered me was space and opportunity to consider the potential role of art in responding to current politics. How might the specific materials and contexts that artists have available to them help make the world a more welcoming place?

A question that kept occurring to me was: how is it possible to adequately represent migration in art, and what’s the purpose of doing this? Whilst the biennial gives no definitive answers this many of its exhibiting artists seem to be grappling with this question. I want to try and explore it a bit more through specific, example works. First though, I will provide a bit of orientation. If you’re reading this and planning to go to Manifesta soon, then what you probably really want to know is: ‘What’s it all about?’ and: ‘What’s worth looking at?’ If you simply want a bit of an overview of what the biennial is and what’s included (and what some of my favourites were) then read Part 2 below. If you want to read my tentative thoughts on how the artists represent migration, then head to Part 3.