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On Rugs Designed by 36 Artists, Visitors Reflect on “Sanctuary” at Fort Mason Chapel

If you’re in San Francisco this week for FOG Design + Art, be sure to stop by “Sanctuary” at Fort Mason Chapel, just a 10-minute walk from the fair at Fort Mason Center. “Sanctuary” is the latest art project from FOR-SITE, an organization that commissions and presents art about place. Notable exhibitions have included the 2016 “Home Land Security” and “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” in 2014.

Cheryl Haines, the Founding Executive Director of the non-profit spoke with Whitewaller San Francisco about inviting 36 artists from 21 countries to design rugs reflecting on the idea of sanctuary. On view through March 11 are rugs by artists like Hamra Abbas, Diana Al-Hadid, John Akomfrah, Shirazeh Houshiary, Hank Willis Thomas, Alfredo Jaar, and others, laid out on the floor, inviting visitors to remove their shoes, walk, sit, and find a quiet space for reflection.

Cheryl Haines Portrait by Jan Sturmann Courtesy of Cheryl Haines.

WHITEWALL: What was the starting point for “Sanctuary,” which opened in October?

CHERYL HAINES: “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” was the largest project that we have completed to date. That became a turning point for us, and for me as a curator, in thinking about my responsibility to address contemporary social issues in tandem with artists who have long been on the vanguard of social change.

Sanctuary “Sanctuary” installation view
Photo by Robert Divers Herrick

Sanctuary is really quite a broad subject—both physical and psychological, it has been a basic and fundamental human need from the beginning of recorded time. One of the artists has addressed that, John Akomfrah with his piece, The Cave. It’s a kaleidoscopic pattern based on prehistoric paintings from Argnetina Cueva de las Manos. That structure provided safety and security 13,000 years ago. His quote about it is wonderful, reading “Our yearning for sanctuary, both as symbolic evocation as well as real knowledge of an actual place, [is] one of the oldest human yearnings. It’s as old as our sense of home, as enduring as our grasp of time, as defining as our sense of mortality.”

This project starts with a universal umbrella of the notion of sanctuary and then continues on that path in such a variety of voices. Like Tammam Azzam who talks about his former studio in Syria, before he was forced to leave Damascus. The sanctuary of his studio gave him safety. Now he’s had to move his family in exile in Germany. He’s talking about his migratory experience and his path as a refugee from a war-torn place to a place of safety.

Sanctuary Rug design by John Akomfrah for the exhibition “Sanctuary” (October 7, 2017−March 11, 2018); Image courtesy the artist.

And there is a layering of the fact that San Francisco is a sanctuary city. All of these things come together to me in a very poetic way to help us address right to safe harbor for people, and really think about how we can support one another.

WW: How did you envision the installation of this within Fort Mason Chapel?

Sanctuary Rug design by Sanaz Mazinani for the exhibition “Sanctuary” (October 7, 2017−March 11, 2018); Image courtesy the artist.

CH: There are 36 rugs and they are all handwoven by artisans in Lahore, Pakistan. They are stunningly beautiful. They are really thrilling. I’m very proud of the artists being willing to step up and design for a medium that most of them have never worked in before. That’s courageous.

The rugs are placed on the floor in a grid with nothing more in the chapel. We request that the viewers remove their shoes and enter, walk, sit, recline, on the artworks. It’s really an opportunity to contemplate our shared humanity and what the notion of individual and collective sanctuary is all about.

Sanctuary Rug design by Tammam Azzam for the exhibition Sanctuary (October 7, 2017-March 11, 2018); Courtesy of the artist.

Our work has always been about asking questions. Not necessarily providing answers.

WW: What questions do you want people to be asking?

Sanctuary Rug design by Alfredo Jaar for the exhibition “Sanctuary” (October 7, 2017-March 11, 2018); Image courtesy of the artist.

CH: We’re asking visitors to really connect with the physicality of these objects and the history that they represent. There is some reference to prayer rugs in this work, though not exclusively. By removing the shoes and physically connecting to these works, I really want visitors to experience perspective of other cultures.


Sanctuary 1945 image of the Fort Mason Chapel, installation site of the exhibition “Sanctuary” (October 7, 2017-March 11, 2018); Photo: US Army.
Courtesy of the artist.





The 60th edition of the Venice Biennale is currently on view, bringing together some of the most celebrated emerging and established artists in the world. We’ve compiled some of the best exhibitions on display.
This year, FOG Design+Art, the Bay Area’s annual international art and design fair, celebrated its 10th anniversary edition.


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