Traces of mobility, violence and solidarity: Reconceptualizing cultural heritage through the lens of migration.

This project aims to undertake ethnographies of heterogeneous memory-making practices and sites along migration routes from Africa to Europe, and to explore the significance of migrant cultural heritage for political theory and action towards justice. The research focuses on migration and human mobility as analytical lenses for conceptualizing cultural heritage beyond sedentarist and nationalist frameworks, exploring the nexus between mobility and cultural heritage in a threefold direction. (i) It investigates the political and social heritage generated by migrants’ presence and by contemporary mobile experiences of struggle and solidarity, exploring how these are remembered or forgotten through intangible, private, local and digital forms of cultural heritage produced by migrants, as well as in forms of public heritage on migration routes. (ii) It draws on these processes to reconceptualize cultural heritage and theorize its relationship to migration (iii) It considers whether and how the cultural heritage of mobility, violence and solidarity traced along migrant routes might serve as political resources for justice-claims.

In the current European political discourse, the historical imaginary of migrants and refugees as a threat to cultural traditions and values resounds. New nationalist narratives are emerging to defend memory and cultural heritage, legitimizing social exclusion, abuse, and the dispossession of rights of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe. Within such a context, the traces of refugee and migrant experiences, the violence committed against them, and the solidarities they share and receive, are subject to erasure; while their memory practices, innovations, sociality and transformative political agency are typically neglected. Migrants share experiences of oppression, violence and struggle with each other and with the people who assist them, but they do not constitute a recognized group with a shared culture, and their memories exceed the conventional boundaries of nations and the public heritage associated with them.

Through a comparative perspective connecting migrants’ trajectories between Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy, in the context of war, and political and structural violence, this research offers a distinctive contribution to debates about threats to heritage and conceptualizations of cultural heritage. It rethinks heritage from the perspective of human mobility, while putting violence, social exclusion and human rights violations at the centre of the analysis. It focuses on memory-making relating to migration journeys, sites of violations, migrant struggles and spaces of sanctuary in order to unravel their varied and contested meanings and relations to political communities, solidarities, and struggles for justice. It not only explores the creative ways in which migrants produce cultural heritage, but also connects and amplifies the heritage of acts of solidarity by and with migrants through the creation of a digital archive. It also attends to African cultures of migration, since human mobility is itself an expression of cultural heritage; the desire to migrate is transmitted across generations and through previous social networks of mobility. Fundamentally, through both theory and practice, the project is concerned with the question of how cultural heritage might contribute to counteracting exclusion and violence against migrants and promoting socially just and sustainable futures for Europe and Africa.

Key questions

Tracing and theorizing migrant heritage

Are new forms of heritage and communities being produced by host communities on migration routes? How are these shaped by the interconnected and political dynamics of memory and forgetting and how are these shared or contested among publics, hosting societies and migrants?
How do migrants remember and share their journeys across Africa to Europe and experiences of violence and loss or of collective protests? How are digital technologies harnessed in memory-making processes and how do ICTs contribute to producing a mobile heritage of migrants’ journeys?
How do the traces of heritage on migration routes and migrant heritage practices unsettle or enrich existing conceptual analyses of ‘cultural heritage’?
Linking migrant heritage to struggles for rights and justice.

How and to what extent are acts of solidarity by and with migrants mobilized in pursuit of political change? How might the heritage of shared struggles and solidarities contribute to the pursuit of justice?

To what extent is cultural heritage on migration routes trapped within ethnic or national framings and implicated in threats to migrants?

How are practices of memorialization and mourning pursued and altered through experiences of mobility? To what extent are these and other heritage practices relevant to agendas for transitional justice for people forced to flee war and climate change?

Methodological approach

The research builds an innovative bridge between refugee and migration studies, anthropological approaches to memory, the political sociology of memory and justice, gender/feminist perspectives on violence and subjectivity to develop a bottom-up understanding of the nexus between cultural heritage and human mobility. It will involve researchers, activists, refugees and migrants in diverse research endeavors along routes and at sites of displacement in Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Italy, in places where migrants stay, temporarily or in a protracted way (zones of confinement; camps; urban contexts). We will draw upon and develop the experience of the research team by focusing on migrants’ journeys between Horn of Africa, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy. The selection of these countries corresponds in part to actual migration routes, from African countries to Europe via the central Mediterranean. Yet this project challenges the representation of migration in terms of linear flows heading to Europe. It explores these four countries not only as spaces of transit but also as spaces of refuge, confinement, detention and hospitality. It will include.