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Artists Respond to the Sanctuary City

In 2019, we curated “side by side/in the world,” an exhibition commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) to celebrate the municipality’s status as a sanctuary city. Our framing question was: How do the present realities of San Francisco, a city of transients, of waves of people who come and go, inform our understanding of the word “sanctuary”? In this essay, we discuss the participating artists’ responses to that question. Revisiting “side by side/in the world” almost three years after it was mounted allows us to consider the exhibition’s statements “about” place, proximity, acknowledgment of one another’s humanity, and care for communities—then and now. Amidst the articulated desires to get “back to normal” is the unavoidable truth that the COVID-19 pandemic is the middle of something; what preceded it, for many, was stark inequity and indifference to it. The ravages of the coronavirus have thrown the ethos of sanctuary into relief, making it urgent and relevant in cities that have suffered great losses and for all of us who are relearning the rites of sociability.

Here we discuss how the exhibiting artists in “side by side/in the world” interpreted sanctuary and make an examination of curatorial work as it relates to the concept of the creative city. We thought a lot about the designation of sanctuary city: these are places where everyone is safe and protected, regardless of citizenship status. We felt it was necessary to hold up the ideal of the sanctuary city against the realities of San Francisco, one of the world's most expensive cities. We asked, “How does the notion of sanctuary bump up against the inhospitable landscape?” In doing so, we chose a broad range of artistic responses: poetic, surrealist, and materials-based works that highlight both the intimate and global concerns of the artists. We arranged the works in the gallery to highlight these topics. Our conversation offers readers a virtual echo of seeing the exhibition within the SFAC main gallery. As we spoke about their context, we also outlined what audiences glean from the physical and visual aspects of artworks. Our remarks are meant to walk the reader through installation photographs of “side by side/in the world,” taken by Phillip Maisel.


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Figure 1. Installation photo of “side by side/in the world,” 2019, San Francisco Art Commission Main Gallery. Left to right are artworks by Yoon Lee, Alberto Toscano, Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio, and Lauren A. Toomer.

Jacqueline Francis: “side by side/in the world” presented the work of ten California artists who provided their outlook on sanctuary, offered in painting, mixed media installation, video, and virtual reality technology. Several themes weave through the artworks: the broadly defined landscape, its histories, neglect, and healing in/by communities. Taken together, these key phrases emerged from the ways that these artists were thinking through their roles as cultural workers living in challenging urban environments in 2019. As curators, we wanted to highlight the artists’ creative labor: in the works, there’s so much evident layering, building, stitching, drawing, detailing, and cutting of materials. Across the board, we were interested in bringing viewers’ attention to the physical qualities of the artworks as evocations of dynamic city spaces. We saw the artists’ works as assertions… assertions of the right to live and work in the city. Questioning how and why San Francisco has become less affordable has been considered often; our exhibition highlighted how people, nonetheless, make and maintain connections to places. It’s an evergreen question.

Kathy Zarur: Right, and it's a question that we were considering in our 2016/2017 exhibition “Where is Here” at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. For that show, we were thinking about place in abstract ways but also how it connected to the experience of being in and from a place. In “side by side/in the world,” many artworks are visual expressions of the material and experiential quality of the city. One example is this photograph (figure 1) of works by four of the artists in “side by side/in the world.” In Lauren Toomer’s drawings, we see figures against a landscape which, in the case of Figure in Ground from 2014, is so abstracted that the background disappears completely (figure 2). The drawing depicts a person splayed on the ground at the bottom left. While the title Figure in Ground does not suggest an urban environment, the drawing evokes the city—in particular, San Francisco. This has a jolting impact on me because the term “figure and ground” is an objective one used to describe artworks in which a figure is depicted with a background, middle ground, and foreground. Perhaps because of the prevalence of houselessness in San Francisco, I read the “ground” in Toomer’s title as the literal ground upon which we walk and, as in the drawing, lie. The double entendre in Toomer’s title highlights the blatant brutality of the housing crisis and the failure of the city to wield its wealth to support those who need it the most.


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Figure 2. Lauren A. Toomer, Figure in Ground, 2014. Graphite on paper, 22 x 30”. Courtesy of the Artist.

Francis: Toomer’s drawings are intimate and quiet. They are hauntingly direct and powerful, and able to hold their own when juxtaposed to the much larger, mixed media sculpture called San Francisco de Alla from the Caucho series (figure 1). Made by Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio, Caucho takes its name from an indigenous Central American plant that produces natural latex. Aparicio coated a ficus tree in San Francisco’s Mission District with latex. Once the latex hardened, he pulled off the skin-like rubber, a process that literally cleans the surface of the tree because the rubber absorbs everything: stirred-up street dirt, exhaust fume residue, graffiti, staples from fliers posted to the tree. The latex skin almost works as a print of the tree’s surface, and, by extension, it carries information about the Mission District—the home to many people who fled Central American nations in the 1980s, a decade marked by civil wars and US-fomented political instability. We wanted this monumental piece to be seen by visitors as soon as they entered the gallery.

Zarur: It was necessary to hang it away from the wall because it's double-sided. Visitors were able to walk around it. The way it occupied that space in the gallery reminds us of the fact that we are always in spaces that we navigate. Once viewers moved away from Caucho, they encountered a collection of small, untitled works on wood panels by the late Alberto Toscano (figure 3). [1] Toscano referred to these works as paintings, though his medium wasn't paint. It was synthetic polymer clay that was cut, spliced, and layered onto the wood panel support. He then heated the works to secure the clay.

Image of four paintings hanging in a gallery

Figure 3. Clockwise from top left: Alberto Toscano, Untitled #4, Untitled #1, Untitled #2, Untitled #3, all: polymer clay on wood panel, 8 x 8”. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.

Francis: The dimensions of Toscano’s works range from five-by-five inches to ten-by-ten inches. There are allusions to the Port of Oakland’s cranes and Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. There are isolated moments of whimsy—like a figure doing a cartwheel. Yet, for the most part, these surrealistic scenes are freighted with anxiety and uncertainty. We’re either looking at the beginnings of a civilization or the aftermath of disaster—both times when people would be looking for allies that they can trust. For us, the title of Yoon Lee’s triptych painting also evoked desperate times: Hard-boiled Wonderland (figure 1). Lee was inspired by a dreamy, cyberpunk novel by the contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and by the American writer Raymond Chandler’s detective stories. Lee is an amasser and creator of images: she scans found media images and her own drawings and uploads them onto her computer. Then, she distorts them, using the reworked images as jumping-off points for her moderately abstract and fully nonobjective paintings. This painting is a layered read of San Francisco’s downtown, which she interprets as landscape undergoing radical transformation. There’s no human presence in the picture, so there’s no sense of human connections. In their absence, the city strikes as a hard, slick, and too-busy-to-stop-and-care metropolis.

Zarur: Whereas Yoon Lee’s painting is an analog representation of the hectic energy of the city, Asma Kazmi uses the technology of virtual reality to complicate notions of sanctuary. Visitors to the exhibition put on VR goggles and explore an urban space. The scene captured in this installation photo (figure 4) juxtaposes makeshift structures where people live, which Kazmi photographed in the Bay Area, with a mass of overlapping, hand-drawn cranes that tower over the encampments. Kazmi uses the cranes to reference redevelopment of the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, in particular around the Kaaba, the holiest site of Islam. In fact, Mecca itself is a kind of sanctuary city, a haram, where people, animals, and nature are protected. Yet when this ideal butts up against the pressures of capitalism and the desire to cater to patrons of luxury tourism, those of lesser means are pushed out. Ironically, the displaced in this case are the builders working on these construction sites. In contrast to the exclusive views of the Kaaba, Kazmi cites laborers from places like Bangladesh and Sudan whose impoverished nearby neighborhoods are today being demolished in favor of luxury high-rises. In this work, Kazmi collapses space to highlight the dark side of redevelopment in San Francisco and Mecca: gentrification and displacement.


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Figure 4. Asma Kazmi, Building the City of Exiles, 2019. Adam Hutz, programmer. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.

Francis: Wearing the VR headset was not a requirement for engaging Kazmi’s installation. The video projected on the wall sensitively communicated the artist’s concerns: its imagery included symbols of San Francisco’s curbside communities such as parked RVs and shelters built from scavenged materials. Speakers also broadcast an audio track of Kazmi critically describing gentrification in Mecca; visitors also could read this narration as closed-caption texts. Kazmi’s aim, of course, was to create parallels between the tales of two cities, each shaped by capital investment and consumer desire unconcerned with the larger social good.

Zarur: I like how Kazmi’s immersive space relates to the nearly life size figures in Esther Elia’s large-scale painting (figure 5), which hung at the far end of the same wall. Though Elia does not emphasize the space of the city, we chose it because it references the concept of sanctuary, which figured prominently in the exhibition. The painting is divided in half. In the bottom half, a man swears on the holy book of the Quran that he’s not hiding any Christians. The Ottoman soldiers have comically large smiles which become disturbing when we realize that the painting is set during the Armenian Genocide. This work tells the story of Elia’s Assyrian family, another Christian community that was targeted. The painting depicts a tricky situation: the man swears on the Quran that he’s telling the truth, and yet by lying to protect the family, he is standing up against oppression, one of the tenets of Islam. In the top frame, a multigenerational family is crowded onto a rug. They’re frowning, embracing, and trying to keep the baby quiet. Today, when I look at this painting, I’m reminded of tragedies that have befallen us during the pandemic in which people have been forced into close quarters regardless of mandates to socially distance. I’m thinking of protests during the Black Lives Matter uprising, incarcerated people in both prisons and at the borders, refugees crammed into boats, the everyday challenges of living in Gaza, where people are not allowed to leave, and now Ukrainians who line up at the borders to do exactly that. In dire situations, priorities shift. Despite the risk, people come together. We need each other.


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Figure 5. Esther Elia, Swear you’re not hiding Christians? c. 1915, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 77 x 123”. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.

Francis: We put Elia’s work in conversation with Pamela Z’s Suitcase (figure 6). For several years, she had been thinking about the psychology of locations, home, and the circulation of bodies and our stuff, in part because, in the pre-pandemic years, she frequently traveled from her base in San Francisco to artists’ residencies and performance halls across the world. The vintage suitcase is an emblem of anyone on the move, whether voluntary or involuntary. It struck us as the accoutrement of the traveling artist Pamela Z and divergently as an index of dislocation, something used by someone forced to move. Pamela Z projected a video of herself sleeping in the open suitcase; the audience, peering over it, would trigger an audio track of her mumbled words. That she used her own body and voice for the represented character—a restless, psychically disturbed protagonist—was a risky strategy, for it would have been easy for audiences to collapse the artist’s cosmopolitan life into the artwork’s subject.


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Figure 6. Pamela Z, Suitcase (from Baggage Allowance), 2010. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.

Zarur: I like that you wanted to distinguish between Pamela Z—a powerful producer and performer—and the vulnerable figure she plays in the suitcase. I would like to add that we can be both vulnerable and have agency simultaneously, and I think this brings out the empathy that we were after in this exhibition. Along two adjacent walls is Sheila Ghidini’s site-specific installation Migration (figures 7 and 8). It is a large-scale map drawn in pencil with red pins placed at points of departure and arrival. In contrast to this abstracted depiction of migration are chairs that are mounted to the wall. They reference an intimate domestic space and we can relate to these everyday objects. Ghidini connects the pins to each other with red string to signify journeys, sometimes multiple times to emphasize specific routes. With the string, she also connects these locales and journeys to the chairs, creating a dynamic between the abstraction inherent to map making and the realism of the chairs. Whereas one suggests anonymity, the other points to the individual. The chair offers us respite and invites us to sit our weary bodies down. On the wall and out of place, however, they become inaccessible and point to the exhausting and often treacherous nature of migration.


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Figure 7. Sheila Ghidini, Migrations, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.


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Figure 8. Sheila Ghidini, Migrations (detail), 2017. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.

Zarur: In Crystal Liu’s collage painting (figure 9), she portrays a relationship between celestial bodies. We saw this as a poetic metaphor for living together side by side, in the world. We also should say that our exhibition title was drawn from the opening and closing lines of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “Sanctuary,” written in 1989. The lines that inspired us were, “I could not disengage my world / from the rest of humanity... The sun passes between our lives / as between two trees / one gray, one green / but side by side.”


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Figure 9. Crystal Liu, the mountains, ‘the partition’, 2016. Collage, gouache, ink and watercolor on paper, 30 x 30”. Courtesy of the Artist. Image courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery.

Across from Liu’s painting and the title wall, which referenced Baca’s poem, we hung an installation of small works by Lisa Solomon. Her 2019 project Hinan // Evacuation deals with Executive Order 9066 and the history of Japanese internment in the United States (figure 10). We chose a selection from Hinan that includes multimedia works based on archival photographs taken by photographers like Dorothea Lange. Solomon recreates the photographs in watercolor, parts of which are stitched with red thread. The works are double layered; the backing, situated about an inch and a half from the watercolor image, is visible through holes in the work. Alongside hanging threads, shadows are cast against the wall, gestures that expand the image beyond the paper. Solomon chose photographs taken during the seven days that so-called evacuees had to make arrangements for their homes, businesses and belongings before they were moved to collection centers and, months later, internment camps. Solomon selected photographs that include text, such as “I Am an American” (figure 11), and excised each of the letters. By doing so, she revealed a wave pattern printed on paper placed behind it. Therefore, while the empty spaces imply absence, the visibility of the pattern suggests a simultaneous presence. The pattern is a type of Japanese stitch called sashiko that was traditionally used for mending. Sashiko means “impossible mending,” an allusion to the challenge of coming to terms with Executive Order 9066. Metaphorically, her use of sashiko, impossible mending, suggests the impossibility of making sense of this dark period in world history. It also suggests the artist’s insistence on facing that history. In making apparent her formal process and leaving hanging threads, she reminds viewers that there is no easy way through such traumatic histories.


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Figure 10. Installation photo of Lisa Solomon, Hinan // Evacuation series, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist and Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.


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Figure 11. Lisa Solomon, I am an American, 2019. Watercolor on paper with cut outs, overlaid on hand screen printed Sashiko Seigaiha [wave] patterned paper, 10 x 8”. Courtesy of the Artist and Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries and Phillip Maisel.

Francis: The renewal of anti-Asian racism is among the crises of present-day San Francisco. Verbal and physical attacks on people of Asian and Pacific Islands heritages in 2020 and 2021 raise questions about the city’s sanctuary status. Xenophobic rhetoric from the Trump White House fueled animosity in the streets, hate speech on social media, and hate crimes. [2] In more than a few high-profile cases, assaults were carried out by isolated persons living with unaddressed mental illnesses and substance use disorders, including some people who additionally faced the challenge of homelessness. [3]

I can’t help but to amalgamate these actions, conditions, and events. So, of course, the pandemic was (and continues) to be a calamity: no nation had truly prepared for it. The failings were not just around the absence of well-scripted public health strategy and clear communication of it, but also the failures to foresee the impact of long-existing social disparities. What would happen when residents of congregate housing facilities were pushed into the streets and had to cope without the support of social workers, psychotherapists, and medical professionals? How would service workers shelter in place, stay home if they were sick, manage child care when schools were closed, and survive without their expected paychecks? Yet the talk of systemic reform and the consideration of radical initiatives—single-payer health care, sick leave and sick pay, affordable housing, and universal basic income—was short lived. Capitalism’s impatience (and it seems right to anthropomorphize it) is palpable: it hustles us along, pressures us to get on with it and to return to business as usual. It’s disheartening, especially because COVID-19 will not be the last coronavirus that the world will confront.

In theory and in practice, a sanctuary provides haven for the vulnerable. In “side by side/in the world,” the participating artists explored the fullness of the sanctuary concept: they demonstrated how it stretches from the constructs of sacred architectural form and demarcations of geographical space to experiences of finding refuge and comfort, felt in the heart and in the mind. Yet, San Francisco’s function as a sanctuary city is complicated. On the one hand, volunteers and activists who live and work in the city rushed to San Francisco International Airport in 2019 to offer legal aid services to travelers stranded by the infamous Muslim travel ban.[4] On the other hand, it is impossible not to see the difficulty created by the cost of living in the city. The illusion of safety and the fragility of community for those already here have been thrown into relief by the pandemic. Looking back at "side by side/in the world," we regard the exhibition as communal work in which artists responded to challenges of, and consolations of, sanctuary. Sanctuary, we learned, is not an abstraction; instead, it is a relative term that we negotiate.


[1] Just a few months after “side by side/in the world” closed, Alberto Toscano fell ill and passed away. Toscano (1970-2019) and his work have not been forgotten. We dedicate this essay to him.


[2] Yulin Hswen, Xiang Xu, Anna Hing, Jared B. Hawkins, John S. Brownstein, and Gilbert C. Gee, “Association of '#covid19' Versus '#chinesevirus' with Anti-Asian Sentiments on Twitter: March 9-23, 2020,” American Journal of Public Health 111, no. 5 (2021): 956_964,; and Jennifer Lee and Karthick Ramakrishnan, “Who Counts as Asian, and What Counts as Anti-Asian Hate?” Medium, May 12, 2021,


[3] Thomas Fuller, “The Complex Case Emerging of the Attack of an Asian Woman in San Francisco,” New York Times, June 10, 2021,; and Jaxon Van Derbeken, “Defendant Denies Attacking Multiple Asian Victims On SF Streets,” NBC Bay Area, March 24, 2021,


[4] In San Francisco, hundreds of protesters gathered outside of City Hall to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. In the city’s Excelsior neighborhood in March, activists have covered over signs at the intersection of Mission and Russia streets, attaching paper replacements bearing the words “No War” and “Ukraine,” respectively. During the same month, the San Francisco-based company Airbnb announced a free, short-term housing program for Ukrainian refugees who sought refuge in European Union countries.

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The Right to the Creative City

In 2002, Richard Florida, an urban studies scholar then at Carnegie Mellon University, published The Rise of the Creative Class, which became a surprise best-seller. In 2005, he followed that book with what he called a "prequel," Cities and the Creative Class.


Florida’s key insight in both works was that "creative" people were transforming not only the economy, but also cities themselves. His work was taken up by city planners and public policy makers who were attracted to the idea that catering to creative people would lead to an economic enhancement of city life. The U.S. government seemed to endorse the idea in 2010, when the National Endowment for the Humanities published Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa’s white paper, "Creative Placemaking." Cities throughout the world built museums, created arts districts, and introduced amenities and policies intended to attract "creatives." Indeed, MIT dubbed Florida "the world’s most influential thought leader" in 2013.

Florida’s ideas were met with criticism as well as praise. Critics on the left, such as Jamie Peck, maintained that the "creative city" was little more than a justification for neoliberal governance, widening inequalities, and the gentrification of neighborhoods. In 2017, Florida himself seemed to accept many of these criticisms, retreating from his earlier work in a book tellingly entitled The New Urban Crisis.

This Colloquy, jointly curated by a scholar of performance studies and a scholar of urbanism, explores the impact of the creative cities paradigm in cultural policy and scholarly thinking. We join Peter Marcuse, Andrew Herscher, and Johanna Taylor in renewing Henri Lefebvre’s spirited plea to establish a “right to the city.” In critically examining the "right to the creative city," we are particularly focused on how this rallying cry has affected marginalized communities, including communities of color, the unhoused, and LGBTQ communities. We ask, "How has the creative city paradigm transformed both contemporary cities and artistic production, and how have marginalized communities asserted their right to the city by deploying creativity in new ways?" In its treatment of these issues, the colloquy bridges some core concerns in contemporary humanities with the worlds of cultural policy, art, and urbanism.

The Colloquy grows out of a project based at the Stanford Arts Institute devoted to Creative Cities. Under the directorship of Phelan, the project hosted two residential fellows each year between 2016 and 2019; their fields included art history, public policy, U.S. history, and geography. The fellows were: Andrew Herscher, Johanna Taylor, Gülgün Kayim, Sam Franklin , Nicholas Gamso and Magie Ramirez. Several of these fellows have contributed to this Colloquy. Creative Cities also launched an interdisciplinary working group that met every few weeks from the fall of 2016 through the spring of 2020 to hear works-in-progress talks. Moderated by Kahan, the workshop included talks from all of the Creative Cities fellows, as well as from a diverse cohort that included architects, curators, artists, urban planners and designers, literary critics, anthropologists, sociologists, media scholars, and more. Many of the contributions to the Colloquy have been drawn from these workshop talks, and we believe these texts illustrate the complex ways cities, art, politics, economics and urban policy intersect.

Today both the concept of the "creative city" and the practices undertaken in its name are contested. Nonetheless, although Florida himself has distanced himself from the term, the idea continues to influence artists, scholars, and cities. We hope that this Colloquy will become a space for debating that influence from a multitude of political and disciplinary perspectives. We envision this as an ongoing conversation, and invite you to add your voice.

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