Encounters & borders – Francesco Piobbichi

As we left Lampedusa and Sicily last week, with its many encounters with staff and refugees, I was conscious that we were heading into Holy Week and a teenage memory came back to me.

A set of daily devotional readings in the lead up to Easter had focused on the different people that Jesus’ encountered on his journey towards Jerusalem.

Francesco Piobbichi is a social worker for Mediterranean Hope, based in the project’s Observatory on the island of Lampedusa.

The ecumenical group visiting Italy met his drawings before we met the artist.

They were hanging up in the Casa delle Culture (House of Culture) centre in Scicli that provides short term care for the vulnerable, often unaccompanied minors, pregnant girls, and women with children.

The pictures document Francesco’s encounters with newly arrived migrants on the quayside and in the charity’s office.

Without lengthy captions or explanations they cry out with challenge.

When I pause to look at them, the symbolism fires off mores ideas and thoughts in my head than I can process.

There is pain and suffering. But also hope.

One drawing in particular feels appropriate for Good Friday. A picture of Christ acting as a bridge for refugees.

One sixth of Lampedusa’s population of 6,000 is connected with military. The island’s position is strategically important for Italy and Europe. Metal fences and barbed wire surround military radar stations as well as the island’s refugee hotspot accommodation. And in Francesco’s drawings, the barbed wire sea depicts the borders that its visitors must cross, of rich and poor, of resident and asylum seeker, of trusted and doubted.

Francesco explains:

“Without Lampedusa, my drawings would not exist, or would have been lost, like so many other things in my life. Lampedusa helped me to find something inside myself that probably should have been sorted out, settled after decades of doodles all over Italy. It is here that I added colours to black and white for the first time.

“These drawings depict the injustice that crosses the Mediterranean and that takes shape in a look, a gesture and in many images in my mind. Some of these drawings were done a few hours after having “lived” these images working as an operator at the Favaloro Pier, while others are real manifestos against indifference that kills, messages to disarm a border that waits for unarmed people, migrants who land with bare hands and bare feet, fleeing war, and the sound of “our” weapons that disrupt their lives.

“For me, drawing is a daily communication path necessary to deconstruct the culture of emergency and the media perception of fear. It is something I can give back to this island, which has been saving lives and which today has reluctantly become a large militarized ‘hotspot’ that arbitrarily distinguishes between categories of people, disregarding their rights. Following agreements with Turkey, Europe has now become a fortress enclosed within its social egoism. It won’t be easy to get out.

“Strength of will is the only hope we have, the colour of my drawings try to represent this despite the pain they express.”

Francesco Piobbichi was born in Umbertide, Perugia. He is currently a social worker for Mediterranean Hope, a project run by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy. These drawings aim at raising funds to finance emergency support to migrants arriving at the Favaloro Pier in Lampedusa and to establish a scholarship for students of Lampedusa.