Remembering the Kerkennah Migrants: Blue Iftar by Hela Lamine and Central Art Gallery

blue iftar.jpg

On June 2nd 2018, a boat carrying 180 migrants sank off the coast of Kerkennah, a Tunisian island 160 kilometers away from Lampedusa.

The boat, which could only carry 60 people, capsized 8 kilometers away from the coast of Kerkennah.

According to IOM, the number of fatalities was over 100.

Four days after the tragedy, Lotfi Brahem, the minister of interior was sacked and so were many of the security officials in Sfax.

A month later, the Kerkennah tragedy disappeared from the media.

Hela Lamine, an artist and professor at the University of Fine Arts in Sousse, took it upon herself to commemorate this tragedy twice.

In July 2018, Lamine painted a mural called “Shqaf al-Hurriqa” شقف الحريقة (The Raft of the Jellyfish/Medusa) in Bhar Zibla, Sousse, a powerful tribute to the many lives we lost at sea. The mural is a cartoonish reproduction of Géricault’s “Radeau de la Méduse.” You can read more about it on this blog here.

On June 3rd, 2019, exactly a year after the tragedy, Hela Lamine organized Blue Iftar, a second commemoration of the tragedy.

Blue Iftar was a big participatory art event in collaboration with Central Art Gallery.. According to Hela’s Instagram, 120 people took part in the event. The participants had no idea what to expect. The artist and the gallery were very discreet the whole time.

The building that houses Central Art Gallery and Cosmitto Café

When we first bought our tickets, we had to fill out a form that was a bit intrusive. We needed to indicate our names, our employer’s name, our marital status, our number, our email address, and whether or not we understood Tunisian Arabic.

I was uncomfortable giving out all this information about myself, but I did it anyways.

On the day of the event, we received an email and a text message reminding us to be at Central Art Gallery at exactly 6 PM, otherwise we would miss our “take off.”

Once at Central, we had to fill out a longer form, just as intrusive as the first one,  but much more poetic.

Some of the questions were:
“Are you happy in Tunisia?”
“What animal would you want to be re-incarnated as?”

I answered these questions with glee, as I knew Hela would definitely convert this “data” into more art in the future.

Yes, I am happy in Tunisia.

I would like to be a flamingo. I think I would really enjoy being a pink migrant bird.

I answered some of the other questions with a lot of pride in my “cosmopolitanism.”

“Did you travel outside Tunisia in the last three years?”

I listed all the European and North American countries I went to, without really thinking about my privilege.

We were then separated into three groups, given a survival kit, and told to follow our guides.

Our first stop was at an old Italian print house called Finzi. How could I have lived in this neighborhood for five years (2006-2011) and never even noticed it?
The print house predates French colonialism by 50 years.

I was angry at the history textbooks and at the history teachers, my parents included.

Why wasn’t the history you taught us more materialist? Why was it always about old men, young men, assassinated men? Why did I not feel connected to the city in my twenties? Why did I hate it and why did I want to run away from it?

We watched two performances at Finzi’s. The first one was downstairs. We were in the dark and suddenly we saw a window light up with an orange light and an actor appeared. The actor looked like he was swimming peacefully next to some blue and green fish, then suddenly he started gasping for air and drowned.

The second performance was upstairs. An actor with a big Afro was hiding between boxes, dancing to the rhythms of an imagined boat, fretting like a trapped hamster, and crying at times.

Finzi served to remind us of the complex relationship Tunisia has had with Italy. Italian settlers outnumbered the French during colonial times. They built their fortunes here. Today, however, for Fortress Europe, “only capital can cross international borders in a heartbeat and only the elite can have rights; labor must be kept within controllable geographic spaces, spaces where there are no rights.

I only connected the dots of this complex Mediterranean map when I went back home. During the event, I was following our tour guide and taking pictures of my friends like a tourist.

Our second stop was at the Barcelona Metro Station. Hela met us there and asked for our tickets. Once we handed her our tickets, she allowed us to enter the station. As we emerged out of the tunnel, we found ourselves in the middle of a third performance. An actor climbed up and down the poles of the station, which looked like the poles of a ship, until he saw Lampedusa and ran away as he fast as he could.


On our way to our last stop, we heard the azan of the Maghrib, which meant that we could finally eat (in public). Our guide told us to open our survival kit. The kit had 14 items. Water. Dates. Yeastless bread. Tunisian coffee candy. A bagful of Tunisian air. A bagful of Tunisian soil. A life vest. Instructions for survival.


We finally arrived at our last stop. The place was triangular and looked like a hangar. It was decorated like the interior of a ship. We were welcomed by a small marching band playing very solemn music, then told to go upstairs to be served Iftar.

The tablemats were made out of very thin paper and looked like talismans that we were supposed to color ourselves. They were cartoonish prints of the Medusa, the Libyan sea creature that our ancestors believed could keep the evil eye away. Around the Medusa’s head, there were scribblings in Arabic about home and travel. Hela left four crayons on each table. I started coloring mine, but never finished it because the food arrived.

We feasted on the fish that feasts on the bodies of the migrants, while a whole performance was taking place downstairs. Some of us paid attention, but many of us were too hungry to do so.

I ate ravenously but I also tried to decipher the lyrics of a very sad song about Rome and to understand the story a migrant was telling us. Sometimes thunder played in the background. At times, kitchenware was thrown from upstairs. We looked away from our plates for a few seconds then continued eating.

Thank you Hela, Central, and Cosmitto for this Blue Iftar. It reminded me of Kerkennah, de-familiarized Place Barcelone for me, and helped me reflect on my privilege.

Thank you also for accomodating my vegan and vegetarian friends Ouiem and Fadil who did not participate in our festive cannibalism.

Thank you Ouiem and Fadil for asking so many questions about our bourgeois privilege as consumers of art.

There is so much left to unpack about this performance. The survival kit itself deserves an entire article, or a poem.






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