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  • Sink Without Trace

Meet Maya Ramsay

Updated: Jul 7, 2019

Graphite rubbing from the grave of a migrant who died at sea, 2017, Maya Ramsay

How long have you been making work on the subject of migrant deaths at sea, and why did you start making work on this subject?

My work has focussed on the subject of conflict since 2008 and on migrant deaths at sea since 2014.

I've been aware of the subject since I was 12 years old, when I saw the first newspaper image that was published of a migrant who died at sea, whose body was washed up on a beach in Tarifa in Spain, in 1988.

Having had ancestors who came to the UK as refugees and migrants and having grown up surrounded by people from refugee/migrant backgrounds, I always felt very connected to, and incensed by, the subject.

I started making work on migrant deaths at sea because of the lack of media and political attention towards the subject in the UK for around 25 years and to encourage a deeper level of engagement with and understanding of the subject.

Why did you choose to use the medium that you have in relation to the subject?

Given the extremely sensitive nature of the subject, I undertook many years of extensive research before attempting to make any work. In general in my work I try to bring the physical materials of subjects, such as conflict, closer to viewers, who usually only experience these subjects through media images.

I wrote an article on the subject of art and migrant deaths at sea, analysing many of the works that had been made by other artists and some of the ethics involved in making work on the subject (Reframing the debate: The art of Lampedusa, Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, 2016). Gradually through my research I decided to focus my work on the fact that the vast majority of migrant’s bodies remain unidentified and untraceable, meaning that their families are unable to grieve fully.

In 2016, made a series of 30 graphite rubbings on tissue paper from the graves of unidentified migrants who died at sea, to highlight the fact that in 2017 it was 30 years since the first recorded death in European waters, in post- Schengen times. That migrant deaths at sea are far from a recent phenomenon.

Few people will ever visit these graves and experience them for themselves, so the intention is to bring them as close to viewers as possible. Making rubbings was the least invasive and most sensitive way that I could think of to make work on the subject.

The following year I made rubbings from the names painted on the sides of shipwrecked migrant boats. My project, entitled 'Countless', also includes film and photography from the cemeteries and boat graveyards, in order to give as much information as possible.

I have also collected and presented found objects and materials from shipwrecked migrant boats, which would otherwise be destroyed. I believe that these objects and materials have an innate power to speak to the viewer. My recent research revolves around the almost complete absence of objects and materials relating to migrant deaths at sea within museums in the UK and aims to encourage the preservation and presentation of these objects and materials in museums, in the same way that objects from the Holocaust and Hiroshima have been preserved and presented.

Tell us about your view on the role of art, galleries and museums, in relation to the subject.

Art has a very important role in presenting alternative perspectives on the subject of migrant deaths at sea, which is otherwise often only presented through politicians and the media.

Migration has become a highly popularised subject in the arts in recent years but there has been a lack of engagement with the subject of migrant deaths at sea. Galleries and museums have largely focussed on other, less harrowing, aspects of migration. To date, there have only been two other exhibitions in the UK that have substantially involved the subject, which is why myself and Federica Mazzara decided to curate the Sink Without Trace exhibition. In addition, galleries and museums rarely show the work of those artists who have actually experienced these journeys themselves, which is another aspect that we chose to focus on in this exhibition.

What do you hope to achieve with your work on the subject?

Through both my artwork and curating I aim to provide alternative perspectives on the subject, to encourage people to experience the subject more closely and to inspire a deeper level of understanding and engagement with the subject. I hope to inspire visitors to request that governmental migration and asylum policies be changed and that safe migratory routes be implemented. I also hope to encourage people to support charities such as Alarm Phone and to encourage museums to show objects relating to migrant deaths at sea.

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