How an exhibition of prayer rugs aims to stand up against Trump's travel ban

How an exhibition of prayer rugs aims to stand up against Trump's travel ban

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.

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Sanctuary installation view. Photograph: Robert Divers Herrick