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Political Stigmata: Arrest and Expenditure in the Art of Carlos Martiel
Jill Lane | New York University
In a gallery lies a fallen angel. A naked man, face down on a marble floor, wing-arms splayed, as if broken. White dove feathers pierce the length of his arms. Were the feathers not strong enough to sustain his flight? (Stampede, 2017).
On a shore lies a man-mollusk. He is curled in a fetal position, roughly washed by the sea. Metal anchors are lodged in his shoulders; fishing wire ties him to the breaker wall. He will never swim away (Sujeto, 2012).
In a theatre a body wears twelve yellow stars, sewn point by point into his skin, like a human flag. The stars are taken away; the flag/body is perforated. Now it does not fly (Expulsion, 2015).
Performed by the Cuban artist Carlos Martiel in 2017, the piece Estampida [Stampede] encapsulates the major concerns of his work. In it, the 29-year-old Martiel appears naked and face down on the marble floor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with the back of his arms pierced by white dove feathers from shoulder to wrist. Importantly, the feathers were brought to the United States from Cuba for the performance. These imported feathers, literally inserted into Martiel’s flesh, draw a stark image of flight from Cuba and the attendant costs in pain and disillusion that such flight may exact. The pain of such piercing appears as both precondition and necessity of the ocean crossing, for an ordinary Cuban and also for an artist: can the Cuban—Cuban man or Cuban art—survive the passage to the north? If he tries, at what cost? If, like a sort of Antillean Icarus, he should fail, how great the loss? Lying on the floor of a museum, surrounded by artworks on the walls, the performance also queries the relation of the Cuban, in particular, the Afro-Cuban, to art and broader artworlds. Such questions have been major subjects of Martiel’s work for the last ten years: the politics and aesthetics of race, the desire for a flight from an insular Cuba, and the condition of the migrant in the contemporary global landscape. The formal composition of Estampida similarly captures the aesthetic grammar of his work. Centered around precise performance gestures of his naked body alone—what he calls “corporal honesty”—the works are marked by stillness, silence, and endurance, lending them a marked statuary quality. His are breathing monuments to scenarios of political loss, intimidation, and repression.
Like other visual artists, Carlos Martiel became familiar with techniques of one-point perspective, a founding technique of three-dimensional drawing. In 2013, he created a work that demonstrates his debt to and departure from traditional drawing and painting. Entitled Punto di fuga [Vanishing Point], the work can be seen as an iteration of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, depicting a forward-facing naked man with outstretched arms. Horizontal lines extend from the surrounding walls toward his body and converge in one point at the horizon line—the vanishing point—in the middle of his torso. In Martiel’s version, these perspectival lines are long woolen threads nailed to the wall on one end and sewn to his skin on the other. The threads are angled toward his torso; it appears he is pierced through by these weapon-lines that produce the perfect illusion of perspectival painting. He stands with his arms outstretched and his skin so pierced for seven hours. The work is a complex and painful meditation on the heavy burdens of art itself: Martiel is both subject and object of the work, simultaneously artist and his subject, the contemporary Vitruvian man. He thus renders his body, in all senses of the word, in and to the artwork.
Punto di fuga asks: what is the relation of this artist and this body to the classical subject of art? In its silence, stillness, and endurance-duration, the piece takes on the quality of classical sculpture, the male nude. [He says: “if I weren’t a performer, I would be a sculptor” (2017)]. On the other hand, the bodily risk and harm, pierced skin, and the literal capture of his body in the gallery space make evident the fierce visual politics of race that informs every one of his works. It could not be otherwise: the public is presented with a naked, captive black man on display and by historical necessity cast in the long shadow of the slave auction. Cuban-American artist and theorist Coco Fusco writes,
The interrelationship of nudity, enslavement, and public display of the black body is historically linked to the spectacle of the auction block and of lynching. Both these scenarios operate in two registers simultaneously: as actual historical referents and as phantasmatic scenes that stand for the origin of the racial subjugation of the black subject” (6).
Martiel has engaged precisely these histories of racialized violence and visual consumption; he does not represent scenarios of racial violence, but rather enacts them and makes explicit the violence these perpetrate on black bodies. Consider, for example, Empire from 2015, in which Martiel lies naked on the floor of the gallery with one foot caught in a steel trap used to hunt wild animals—casting himself as a dehumanized casualty of empire. Or consider Trophy (2016), in which Martiel lies on his side on the floor of the gallery with a hunting arrow traversing the side of his torso. He is the big game animal—the trophy catch—brought down by the hunter. He is also a fugitive black man suffering the consequences of his (re)capture.
Another performance, Mulo (Mule, 2016), directly addresses modern day slavery, “particularly as it affects immigrants from Latin America working in the United States’ agricultural sector.” In it, Martiel lies face up on the gallery floor with his legs raised and tightly confined in a large, dried out trunk of a pear tree for 8 hours. The fruit tree, source of seasonal labor, traps the body of the laborer. The image unmistakably references a common form of corporal punishment during slavery, the stocks, in which the captive was rendered motionless and prone, sometimes for days, by having his or her legs locked in one position. Martiel’s performance is at once a reenactment of that “scene of subjection” and a tribute to its victims, then and now. Historian Harvey Young studies the interrelationship between stillness, critical memory, and the black body, and argues that such enactments of arrest “open the floodgates of black memory associated with this bodily positioning.” We can think, with Young, of the still and silent performances Punto de fuga or Mulo as monuments of arrest, conjuring the long history of “black bodies arrested and re-arrested” by a police state, and the countless ways that such white supremacist discipline has brought black bodies to conditions of motionlessness. Joseph Roach might characterize such gestures as “residual movements” drawn from a deep “mnemonic reserve” of “patterned movements made and remembered by bodies” over a long and violent colonial history (1996, 26).
To understand Martiel’s approach to race in the context of Cuban art, and black art in particular, his Punto di fuga might usefully be compared with the artist Elio Rodriguez’s Eclipse, from 1999, which similarly recreates Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Both artists are part of a genealogy of racially engaged art in Cuba, whose recent history begins with the Grupo Antillano in the late 70s and 80s. This collective approached “the presence of blacks in Cuban art as a postcolonial metanarrative in which ‘the other’ lays claim to the possibility of organizing history based on his own categories and from a self-referential ontology,” in the words of Alejandro de la Fuente and Julia Romero (2013, 19). This work was followed by the celebrated Queloides project of the mid- to late-90s and of 2010, in which Elio Rodriguez was a leading voice, alongside the founder of the collective, Alexis Esquivel, with René Peña, and others.
Produced in 1999—ten years into Cuba’s “Special Period”—Rodriguez’s Eclipse offers a satirical view of the racist association of blackness, eroticism, and the Cuban, an association reactivated in Cuba’s then-new tourist industry (2013, 15). In his version of the da Vinci image, a muscular black man stands in front of the renaissance (white) man, “eclipsing” our view of him. The black man stands with arms crossed and a bold stare; his head fully covers the Vitruvian man’s head and is surrounded by a ring of light, evoking the corona of a total lunar eclipse. If this might suggest an affirmation of black identity as a measure of universal man, the image is cross-cut by satire: an outsized penis, shaped like a giant bat, covers the lower half of his torso and literally protrudes from the painting (this prefigures the large-scale soft sculptures of erotic body parts for which he is now well known). We learn, then, that it is the black man himself who is eclipsed by these racist projections of giant eroticism; he —his penis— literally cannot fit into the painting of the (white) renaissance man.
Rodriguez’s defiant black subject flickers on and off behind the racist projection, suggesting that any “true” encounter with blackness will be refracted—like the sun covered by the moon—through such racist discourse. Martiel, in turn, turns to what he calls “sinceridad corporal” [corporal sincerity] to illuminate questions of race: “Removing your clothes is an act of sincerity.” Undressing “is a matter of removing filters, hierarchies, and prejudices that we keep dragging onto our relations with the supposed ‘other’ and with oneself” (2017). He does not suggest that he can divest his body of race or of the racism that is projected upon it; rather his body alone—skin, stillness, wounding, pain, silence—is foremost the constitutive material of the art and only secondarily its subject. Martiel’s Vitruvian man is unabashedly vulnerable, almost sacrificial, his arms and body pulled outward, as though ready to be drawn and quartered in the name of society or art. Martiel takes up literally the metaphorical work of the earlier Queloides project: A queloide, or keloid, refers to the raised scar that can form over a skin injury, a scar that often is larger than the wound that caused it. Over the course of his performances, the scars of racism are actualized on Martiel’s body.
But is this vulnerable, scarred body a revolutionary body? In Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba (2015), Coco Fusco argues that a dense “archeology of Cuban conduct” underwrites the history of Cuban performance. That archeology includes command performances of patriotism, acts of repudiation against perpetrators of ideological nonconformity, and an overall culture of perpetual surveillance. In the early phase of the revolution, “citizens had to be taught to behave as revolutionaries in a rapidly changing social order, in which one’s actions and conduct became the principal measure of worth, rather than one’s wealth” (75). In 2010—51 years after the start of the revolution, two years after Fidel Castro yielded the presidency to his brother Raúl—Carlos Martiel addressed the continued cost of such obligatory conduct in his piece Prodigal Son, by casting himself as the ideal revolutionary subject. That subject, says Fusco, had to “show willingness to participate in its economic, educational and militaristic agendas through demonstrations of revolutionary sacrifice as well as through performances of allegiance.” Martiel donned green fatigues for this performance and, kneeling, slowly pinned to his naked chest the medals that the Cuban state had awarded to his father. The medals are a paternal inheritance, passing from the paternal state personified by Fidel, to his father, and again from father to son who dutifully performs the revolutionary sacrifice they demand. In this sense, both he and his father realize Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s “New Man” of the Revolution, the man that understands that “our freedom and its daily sustenance are the color of blood and swollen with sacrifice.” However, this son is prodigal: he performs allegiance and sacrifice incorrectly; he openly reveals the gratuitous expenditure of pain, blood, and sweat that is the gruesome price of aging patriotism.
Prodigal Son could be seen as a rejoinder to 1986 near life-size sculpture of Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, entitled Por América, by artist Juan Francisco Elso (teacher and mentor to the performance artist Tania Bruguera, who in turn has been teacher and mentor to Carlos Martiel). Revered as the “Apostle” of Cuban independence, José Martí (1853 – 1895) was a poet, journalist, and anti-imperial revolutionary who championed the cause of Cuban sovereignty. In stark contrast to the classical white stone busts of Martí that are found everywhere in Cuba, Elso’s masterwork depicts a full bodied Martí crafted of roughhewn wood, clothed only in mud, and brandishing a machete, the weapon par excellence of the Cuban independence wars. His body is multiply pierced by wooden darts—a kind of modern-day Saint Sebastian—and blood runs from his scalp to his neck. The work was controversial. On one hand, the piece is carved in the style of colonial baroque santos, and thus invites the expected veneration of the father of the nation. Evoking Marti’s fatal debut on the battlefield, the piece also firmly casts as him as a heroic martyr. On the other, Por América returns Martí to a bodily, bleeding man in full midst of a revolutionary struggle. In those many identical white stone statues of Marti that stand sentry outside of official buildings, schools, or on street corners, the “Apostle” seems to preside over the success of Castro’s Revolution, cementing the official narrative that Martí’s unfinished struggle for independence 1890s was triumphantly completed by the Revolution of 1959. Elso’s Martí, by contrast, is made of organic materials that decay; he is alive but wounded and bleeding. He fights in a revolution whose outcome is not yet sealed, suggesting perhaps that the revolution has yet to be won. The title cites Martí’s famous call to unite Latin America under the name “Nuestra América”; substituting “por” [for] for “nuestra” [our] may further suggest an open-ended future in which, perhaps, America is not yet ours.
Both Elso and Martiel engage the religiosity of Cuba’s secular State, in which Martí is apostle, martyr, and saint, and Martiel is the penitent devotee, on his knees, emulating the santo’s bodily mortification. Elso’s Martí is pierced repeatedly by darts whose fletching shape evokes imperial symbology: a compressed fleur de lis or, more evocatively, a softened cross of the Spanish Order of Santiago, whose patron saint Santiago Matamoros (“St. James the Moor-slayer”) was carried into war during the crusades and was transposed in the conquest of the Americas into a slayer of indigenous infidels. Those many darts, then, could be enemy arrows shot by Imperial Spain in the struggle over independence. Martiel’s skin, in turn, is pierced by the political regalia that ultimately replaced that of Imperial Spain—medals of the victors that avenged the death of Martí and facilitated his apotheosis as a martyr to the nation. Martiel’s piercing in part mimics the suffering of the martyr, becoming in itself an act of self-flagellating reverence (the prodigal son, after all, returns penitent). But the gesture also resists inscription in such regimes of sacrifice and redemption. Unlike Elso’s Martí, Martiel’s commitment to the revolution is, as it were, in a state of arrest—unmoving and unmoved, it suggests no struggle toward a revolutionary future.
In 2014, Martiel further developed his critique of obligatory patriotism in his piece Carlos Martiel Award. In it, he underwent surgery to extract a round piece of skin, about 2 inches in diameter. That skin was subject to a process of conservation and placed into a gold medal that resembled those he attached to his skin in Prodigal Son. The medal was put on display, but he signed the artwork via tattoo on his own skin. In this piece, he literally surrenders part of his body to the State regime of power and its representation. We might think of the wound that such extraction creates, like the wounds on Elso’s Martí, as political stigmata: rather than emulate the bleeding lesions suffered by Christ on the cross, these are lesions created by the State’s claim on the body itself. Through such performances, Martiel says, he works with “trabajar con el dolor como denuncia” [working with pain as a denunciation].
Martiel’s ambivalent relation to present day Cuban governance is most apparent in his work with and about the insular island, addressing the experience of captivity and confinement produced by Cuban controls over travel and emigration. Like many Cuban artists before him, he encounters what writer Virgilio Piñera famously called the “la maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes,” [the damned circumstance of water everywhere] in his poem “Isla en peso.” In 2012, Martiel participated in the exhibition Detras del Muro, a remarkable project that invited 50 artists to create work on and about Havana’s famed seawall, the malecón. For Martiel, the city-long, snaking malecón serves as a final limit, a kind of ultimatum: “You cannot cross here. If you do, you risk your life.” The many Cubans who take refuge on the malecón every weekend to socialize or escape the heat all the while are reminded that they cannot leave; the wall is an architectural expression of that interdiction. One of the organizers of Detrás del Muro put it starkly: “Walls are far-reaching humiliations” (2013, 46). Per Wendy Brown, walls are nothing less than “potent organizers of human psychic landscapes generative of cultural and political identities” (2017, 74). Marking an obdurate boundary between the city and the sea, between Cuba and the world beyond, the psychic landscape of the malecón is territory where an aging Cuban sovereignty meets its constrained and physically restrained citizenry. It is the site at which one might take a measure of a political self against its oceanic “other.” This dynamic is revealed in another controversial piece in the exhibition, by Arlés del Río, entitled “Fly Away” [in English]. It consisted of two large chain link fences, approximately 15 feet by 20 feet each, placed at the edge of the malecón. The chain link was roughly ripped in the middle, in the shape of an airplane. The structure made material what many Cubans experience privately: they see the ocean as if from behind bars, and they can perhaps chart their desires for escape in the path of the airplane—the wall may be penetrable after all.
For the exhibition, Martiel created Sujeto. In it, he lay in a fetal position in the rocky tide pools where the waves meet the sea wall. Two rows of anchors were fitted into his arm and thigh; these were attached by fishing wire to the top edge of the wall. Waves roughly washed over him, pushing and pulling him painfully to and from the wall. Looking from above, the associations were many: he looks perhaps like one rock formation among the others. The parallel lines of fishing wire evoke a fisherman’s net by which Martiel was perhaps ensnared. Or, he is a body washed ashore, a corpse or a castaway from a nearby shipwreck—most likely, the body of a Cuban whose attempt to leave the island by inner tube had gone terribly wrong. In all scenarios, the body is pulled toward the wall, toward the island, the anchors in his skin making literal and painful the prohibition against departure.
In a related and recent piece entitled Hacerse olvido (2017), Martiel returns to the vulnerable body adrift in the sea. In this performance, his sedated body lies across a tire inner tube on the gallery floor. An accompanying text poses the question that we might also ask of Sujeto:
Will we know how many Cubans have died in the strait that separates Cuba from the United States in over half a century? Sunk beneath the stream in the short stretch of the Gulf lays one of the largest cemeteries, filled with victims of hate and tyrannical pride. Death finds them in civilian boats attacked by ships and fighter jets, in rafts built on desperation, in nightmarish shipwreck, swallowed by storms and burned by the sun (Text by Ernesto Santana).”
Like works described above, Sujeto and Hacerse Olvido offer gestures of arrest, in which the physical immobility of the body is overlaid by a political ontology that makes this body subject to—arrested by—the state.
Ocean crossing and the plight of the refugee remains a constant concern of Martiel’s work. In one homage to contemporary refugees, Horizon (2017), performed in the UK, Martiel guides a boat well out to sea. The boat is leaking. When it sinks, he swims to the nearest shore. In another, Mar sin orillas [Sea Without Shores, 2016], performed in Rome, he reflects on “the more than 4,700 people coming from Africa and the Middle East who, during 2016 alone, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe” (Martiel 2017). In the piece he lies naked on the floor, enclosed in a glass box filled with swarming flies, the type of fly that feeds itself exclusively on decaying flesh. The piece oscillates between sacrifice and indictment. Lying in the transparent casket, his motionless body stands in for and memorializes the thousands lost at sea, and it calls to mind the many life size sculptures that adorn classical sarcophagi. As the public watches the flies attack his flesh, the abjection of the refugee comes into view. For the strongest proponents of Fortress Europe, of course, it is the refugee him/herself that is the pestilent vermin, threatening to overrun the walls of Europe. For the refugees and their defenders, the flies would represent so many odious violations of human rights that the refugee has suffered: treacherous ocean crossings, the bodies of children washing ashore, long marches through “human corridors” bordered by barbed wire, overcrowded camps and wretched conditions in such sites as the “jungle” of Calais—all in addition to the dire conditions of violence, war, or crushing poverty that he/she has fled in the first instance.
Against this backdrop, Martiel created the work Mediterráneo for the 2017 Venice Biennale, where he inaugurated the Cuban pavilion. The piece addresses Italy in particular as the second most popular point of entry to Europe of refugees, coming predominantly from Africa through the Libyan route. Performed in an ornate Venetian palazzo, the piece consisted of a simple rectangular glass structure, about the size of a coffin, divided evenly in the middle. The upper level was filled with water taken from the Mediterranean Sea, while Martiel sat in a kneeling position in the lower level. The structure was meant to evoke an hourglass, and as the water slowly drained from the top into the bottom, Martiel was progressively submerged. The performance continued until the bottom was full, leaving mere inches for him to breathe. As in Mar sin orillas, the refugee is trapped in the ocean, with no access to land and at progressively greater risk of capsizing or drowning. That image captures the contemporary condition of the refugee quite well, characterized by the late Zygmunt Bauman as “worldless,” insofar as refugees float in a world “spliced into sovereign states” that “demands identifying the possession of human rights with state citizenship” (Evans and Bauman 2016). The refugee is left to float, perhaps to drown, in a contradictory maelstrom by states unwilling to offer the shelter of statehood to the refugee that is stateless. In 2016, Italian authorities proposed to create so called “floating hotspots,” reception centers on rescue ships that would oblige migrants to register their status prior to coming ashore (RT 2016). The plan literally forced the refugee to declare state status before being rescued, placing the demands of the state over any universal human rights. So too, Martiel’s hourglass cage separates him from the Italian state-world around him: both the vulnerability and expendability of the refugee is made visible as he slowly “drowns.”
In 2015, for the 5th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece, and in the full midst of the so-called “European migration crisis,” Martiel created Expulsion, a performance that also focused on the regime of rights and rightlessness in Fortress Europe. In the performance, Martiel appeared with twelve yellow stars—the symbol of the European Union flag—sewn in a circle across his torso and arms. Each of the five points on each of the stars was stitched into his skin. He waited. After a time, a person entered the space and removed the stars from his body, leaving a ring of stitches—a wide circular scar—in their place. His stare remained inexpressive throughout. The initial image presents a black body “stamped”—perhaps branded—by the symbol of Europe’s shared identity and political union. As the urgent destination of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa—with over 1,300,000 arrivals in 2015 alone—Europe is both a site of hope for refuge and site of virulent anti-migrant hatred and policy. Those stars adorning Martiel’s body may, in the hopeful vein, suggest the welcome offered to refugees, as in Germany’s remarkable open-door policy that accepted nearly one million refugees over the course of 2015. The image, however, is also a question: what is the black man to the EU; do the promises of identity and union extend to him? Sewn into his skin, the stars and their promises certainly carry a cost in pain and subjection. The image is perhaps a provocation as well: the black man has claimed the stars, and perhaps all that they symbolize, for himself.
Once the stars are removed, the man is left with a ring of black thread stitches, bereft of the protections the flag may have proffered. In this image, Martiel stands in for the double refugee: having already fled scenes of war and human suffering, the refugee is violently refused entry or expelled from the Union in which she/he sought refuge. We need only recall that in 2015, Hungary hastily built a 100-mile, 13-foot barbed wire wall at the Serbian and Croatian border in order to close the so-called “Balkan route” to Western Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees. The “migration panic” that fuels such expulsions is, per Zygmunt Bauman, a result of our present condition of “floating” insecurities in an “increasingly deregulated, multicentered, out of joint world” (Bauman 2016). “None of the anchors we cast,” he writes, “proves to be solid enough to hold [our insecurities] in place with any degree of permanence.” Thus, the refugee “embodies in the clearest way the liquidity of fear in the contemporary moment.” (Evans and Bauman 2016) Martiel’s performance confronts us with these “floating” projections of enmity, panic, and threat that are “anchored” to the destitute refugee. His wounded body evokes the desolation and precarity of the refugee, just as they evoke the violence of Europe’s refusal of hospitality. Karolina Kulicka, drawing on Melanie Klein’s object-relation theory, argues that the refugee is Europe’s phantasmatic “bad object”— “a phantasy construct onto which Europe projects its unwanted parts,” among them fear and guilt. She writes, “the creation of the phantasies that frame the anti-refugee discourse prevents Europeans from seeing the actual facts, for example, regarding Europe’s role in the devastation of the territories from which refugees are now escaping” (Kulicka 2017). Expulsion allows us to see, first, the refugee as refugee, as a person in dire humanitarian need, and second, his/her transformation into that phantasmatic “bad object” onto which Europe—and the United States—projects racialized fear and colonial guilt. The stillness of the performance, as in earlier work, is a gesture of arrest: the refugee’s migration is halted by policies of migratory panic; he or she is subject to confined detention in refugee camps; his or her very identity is constrained by Europe’s liquid fear.
Carlos Martiel has engaged the “liquidity of fear” and its high cost to marginal and maligned subjects across his body of work. From the fallen angel-subject of Estampida to the drowning refugee of Mediterráneo, his work has illustrated the degradation of migrant life in the crosshairs of both Fortress Europe and “Fortress Cuba”—establishing a south-south solidarity between the migrants in both contexts. Through the literal piercing and wounding of his body, the medal-bearing “prodigal son,” the star-adorned refugee of Expulsion, and the seawall-bound figure of Sujeto, illustrate the bodily and psychic discipline exacted by State regimes on marginal subjects. In these and other works, such as Trophy or Mulo, he has staged careful gestures of arrest to illuminate the violent and racializing force of legacies of slavery and colonialism.
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Brown, Wendy. 2017. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Zone Books/MIT Press.
Delgado, Calzadilla J. 2013. Detrás Del Muro = Behind the Wall. Cuban Arts Project.
Evans Brad and Bauman, Zygmunt. 2016. “The Refugees Crisis is Humanities Crisis”. The New York Times. May 2, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/opinion/the-refugee-crisis-is-humanitys-crisis.html
Martiel, Carlos. 2017. Personal interview with the author.
Kulicka, Karolina. 2017. “Not Refugees but Rapists and Colonizers.” PhiloSOPHIA. 7 (2): 261-279.
Roach,Joseph. 1996. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press.
RT. 2016. “Floating reception centers’: Italy to fingerprint migrants aboard rescue ships”. RT. April 29, 2016. https://www.rt.com/news/341291-italy-migrants-fingerprinting-ships/