Anna Furman for The Guardian - 15 December 2017
Artists, including Ai Weiwei and Hank Willis Thomas, have designed 36 rugs that symbolize the importance of migration, stating that ‘borders themselves are a fiction’
In a sun-dappled chapel perched atop San Francisco’s decommissioned military base Fort Mason, the well-trodden wood floors are lined with prayer rugs. Shoeless visitors can traipse across, kneel or lay on the four-by-six wool rugs, which are kaleidoscopic in color, and neither spartan nor sumptuous in texture.
Designed by 36 contemporary artists – including Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, Palestinian mixed-media artist Mona Hatoum and African-American conceptualist Hank Willis Thomas – the rugs were hand woven in Lahore, Pakistan and express shipped to California for the exhibit Sanctuary. Originally focused on artists from the six Muslim-majority countries on Trump’s travel ban, the organizers expanded the list to include artists from Botswana, Syria, Mexico, and 17 other countries. (The installation was coordinated by the arts non-profit For-Site, who also organized Ai Weiwei’s impactful Alcatraz installation in 2014.)
In Syrian artist Ammar al-Beik’s rug design, cartoonish profiles of Donald Trump and Bashar al-Assad face each other with a nuclear bomb suspended overhead. In English and Arabic, the word “animal” appears between them – in reference to an interview earlier this year in which Trump called Assad an animal on Fox Business Network. In the background, a truck decorated with the Russian flag and a military-grade ship boasting an American flag intensify the already politically charged image.
In 1989, San Francisco became a sanctuary city, and this October, Governor Jerry Brown signed sanctuary state legislation – bringing another layer of resonance to this inclusive, globally focused installation. Tethered to an exhaustive news cycle in which a week often feels like a year, the installation will evolve in meaning over its six-month run. Implied in this exhibit are US border issues that are disparate but interrelated, including the ongoing criminalization of Mexican Americans as “illegals” and the false conflation of Muslim-Americans with radical Islamic terrorism.