Three white young rich kids travelling on a yacht take two migrants on board of their luxury cabin cruiser; a woman wearing a wetsuit on an inflatable raft destabilised by stormy waves athletically stretches her arms to rescue a young migrant in a hat and 3-stripes tracksuit bottoms.
These are just a couple of the nine ceramic pieces by collective AES + F (a group comprising four Russian artists - Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes), currently on display at the collateral event "Mare Mediterraneum", on in Palermo (in the Sala Pompeiana of the Teatro Massimo; until 19th September) as part of Manifesta 12.
Promoted by the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, the event has one central inspiration, the Mediterranean Sea as the cradle of many different civilizations - from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the Romans and the Byzantines.
Nowadays, though, the Mediterranean Sea has turned into the epicenter of ideological contradictions: it is the obstacle refugees and migrants have to cross running away from wars, tortures and poverty, but it is also a metaphorical battlefield on which freedom fights against xenophobia and ethnic violence.
AES+F's pieces are ironic, but they are also very disturbing: evoking with their kitschness works of other contemporary artists à la Jeff Koons, they play with stereotypes of white rich, priviledged and patronizing people rescuing poor migrants. At times the white saviours are portrayed like Gods, while the migrants they are saving bring back to memory images of women as represented in the posters for Mussolini's African campaign or in the illustrations promoting Italian East Africa. In other cases the white rescuers look like statues of saints, their arms open in welcoming gestures, but their attire and their skimpy swimsuits do not match with their body language and make you wonder if these supposed saviours won't become cruel exploiters once they reach the shore.
According to AES+F, the actual final meaning of these pieces is very simple: they prompt us to wonder (through porcelain, a symbol of bourgeois comfort, but also a metaphor for our collective fragile safety) if we are ready to accept refugees for real in our countries (as opposed to speaking vapid welcoming words just for today - World Refugee Day) and give up part of our material and psychological comfort, or if we are more prone to reject them in an immoral, inhumane and cynical act that undermines the co-operative ethical basis of Europe itself.
The recent events with the Italian Minister of the Interior and Deputy Pirme Minister Matteo Salvini closing the ports, causing a major European crisis and triggering the odyssey of the Aquarius rescue ship, shows that rejecting may become a sad trend, but the porcelain pieces by AES + F with their pastel colours and migrants ready to seduce and be seduced by the white rescuers, also seem to surreally go well with the post-truths fuelled by racism that keep on appearing on the social media. The smooth and sensual neo-Baroque/Pop works tell indeed colourful and happy stories that deeply contrast with the tragic scenes of death and despair we have grown accustomed to seeing online or on television.
One thing's for certain about these pieces, they leave visitors with a serious doubt - will the rich white hosts in these fragile scenes prove really welcoming or will they turn into modern enslavers? Guess the end of the story depends entirely from each and every one of us.