Sanctuary. I used to associate the word with church, all stained glass and high ceilings. It evoked thoughts of Victor Hugo’s hunchbacked bell-ringer Quasimodo valiantly rescuing the gypsy Esmeralda from the hangman’s noose, calling out “Sanctuary!” The concept itself dates back thousands of years, associated with every major religion, not solely Christianity. In the US, the rhetoric of the most recent election cycles has recast the term as a dirty word for many Americans, implying the harboring of criminals as many US cities, including Seattle, declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” refusing to participate in increasingly questionable immigration enforcement actions. Sanctuary cities see this as embracing immigrants and refugees, those who simply seek to live their lives. It is within this fraught context that artist George Rodriguez chose to title his fifth solo show with Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery last February simply, “Sanctuary.”
Interconnectivity of Different Cultures
Rodriguez’s previous show at Foster/White, “Beneath the Surface,” in 2016 represented the culmination of travel he did as a fellowship offered by the University of Washington. That show, made up primarily of his large effigy statues, statuesque heads and sprig-decorated masks, spoke of the interconnectivity of the different cultures he visited in his 10-month, 26-country journey. He found many aesthetic connections between vastly distant cultures—patterns repeated in both Peruvian and Thai decoration, and allegories that crossed oceans, as with Farhad and Zian, figures from Persian mythology whose story evokes that of Romeo and Juliet.
Sanctuary continues with the theme of interconnectivity, but rather than connecting cultures, Rodriguez aimed to connect people: specifically different people who have been marginalized by the current political climate. In his travels, he says he came to the understanding that we must be considerate and accepting of other people, cultures, and individual preferences. As a Mexican-American himself, balancing two different but complimentary cultures, he understands well the misunderstandings that can happen when two distinct worlds collide.
Powerful and Heartbreaking
Back in March 2017, hot off the Women’s March and airport protests of the Immigration Ban, both of which were prominent in Seattle, stepping into Sanctuary at Foster/White’s Pioneer Square gallery during the monthly art walk was powerful, and the crowd knew it. Other galleries had a hive-like buzz, as they do most months, the art walk being a popular social event. Viewers walked into Sanctuary and immediately quieted, met with the first statue, Hands Up. Unlike the other effigies in the show, whose eyes gaze up in hope, this one, a black man, hands raised in the universal gesture of surrender, looks you directly in the eyes. He wears a suit and tie, the suit decorated in Rodriguez’s signature floral sprigs, this time with black and silver engobes. His head is too large for his body, his limbs foreshortened–both characteristic of Rodriguez’s sculpture—giving him a child-like sense that is heartbreaking given the context. He stands alone in his space, just inside the entrance to the gallery, in front of the windows to the street.
Five other figures, in the same style, which Rodriguez terms “guardian figures,” based on ancient tomb sculptures and relics, line the next room in a semi-circle. There is Pride, a bonneted, gender-neutral statue in rainbow colors. Then there is Indigena, dressed as a native of Southern Mexico, fist raised in solidarity. In Hijab, is a stoic, hijab-clad woman with a look of hope on her upturned face. Debutante, is a quinceañera-style dress-clad figure with a half shaven head and large, gauged earlobes. And finally We The People—the only figure in the show to have Rodriguez’s own face, something he generally references frequently—stands with hand to heart, mouth agape as if singing the national anthem. They stand together, united, as we had so recently done in the streets of that same city.
A few smaller pieces punctuate the show, a howling, sprigged wolf with striped socks and a bow-tie, and a frizzy-maned lioness with a clown nose on the tip of her tail, the most personal to Rodriguez. Representing himself in the wolf and his partner in the lioness, two apex predators evoking overtly sexual yet also playful interaction. At first they seem to clash with the incredibly political nature of the first display, but upon consideration they represent a different sanctuary: that of a shared life, a home, of being loved.
A final figure dominates the wide-open atrium: a life-sized Venus figurine, echoing the famous Venus of Willendorf, among others. She is the original sanctuary—the mother who carried us in her womb, who cradled and nurtured us, symbolized here by her breast-feeding child. She is the least decorated figure in the show, the sparse sprig elements highlighting her femininity, emphasizing her broad hips, her breasts, and ankles. She is brown, but cradles a pale child to her breast in an act of unity.
Truthful with Sensitivity
When making the work for this show, Rodriguez felt pressure to be truthful but with sensitivity to the reality the people loosely represented are living. He wanted to create symbols of respect and empowerment, not one-liners, so attention was paid to details like apparel, expressions, and eye focus. This show was made from love for all the people Rodriguez cares for who feel left out, marginalized, afraid of ICE raids and hate.
As a venue, a primarily liberal city like Seattle, a sanctuary city in itself, was the ideal location to host a show for both the people represented and the audience to feel like the open, spacious gallery was a safe space (though even Seattle has shown capable of being home to brutality and violence to minorities).
Rodriguez also had the opportunity this past fall to experience how his work was received in his home state of Texas in an exhibition at the University of Texas at El Paso, titled “Where is our Exile?” Lying on the front lines of the immigration debate and calls to build a wall, Texas proved a compelling site for such a show, and Rodriguez a powerful voice in the discussion.
the author Amanda Barr is currently an artist-in-residence at Pottery Northwest in Seattle, Washington. She is the founder of We Aren’t Invisible, a group that uses artwork to promote visibility of underrepresented issues, starting with an exhibition at NCECA this year in Pittsburgh. Learn more at www.amandambarr.com or on Instagram @amandambarr and @wearentinvisible.