Artist Sofía Córdova Reflects on How the Meaning of Sanctuary Has Evolved Over Time

The artist revisits what it means to be a Sanctuary, both as a religious term and a safe space for those in need of protection

Market Street poster in bus kiosk

SAN FRANCISCO - Oakland-based artist Sofía Córdova’s A Body Reorganized is the fourth and last installment of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Sanctuary City-themed Art on Market Street Poster Series. Córdova created an inclusive set of images portraying the diversity of the undocumented population, as well as others who have sought refuge in Sanctuary Cities.

“It has been deeply enriching to engage local artists in a dialogue about Sanctuary Cities through our Art on Market Street Poster Series program, which is seen by thousands of people every day,” says Director of San Francisco’s Public Art Program Susan Pontious. “Sofía Córdova’s contribution to the program moves the conversation beyond immigration with an examination of how identity and religion have also played a role in the Sanctuary City movement.”

For A Body Reorganized, Córdova aimed to toy with the idea of religious imagery; in order to do so, she used the composition of the saint tableaux to place the images of six individuals. The artist describes her images as Neo-Orishas, figures derived from Catholic saints in Santeria, a pantheistic Afro-Cuban religious tradition that evolved from the indigenous practices of the Yoruba people. “A pantheon of new deities is derived from hardship and out of the adaptation of traditions brought from home to a strange, new land,” states Córdova.

The series includes examples of groups who are usually underrepresented in the discussions around sanctuary. For example, she included portraits of a Filipina woman to highlight how sanctuary is sometimes forced upon people, as was the case of the Philippines in becoming a US colony, and a woman from a federally unrecognized Native American Tribe, representing the many tribes who were offered sanctuary in exchange for the acceptance of Christianity. Other portraits include a recent Salvadoran immigrant, and a Chinese dissident who was forced to leave China due to religious persecution, both of whom found new homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the faces of her subjects are partially obscured to preserve their privacy, the posters convey intimate first-hand accounts of their experiences.

“I wanted to create a testament to the resilience and adaptability of cultures and individuals in the face of the new world and the necessity of slipping into a new identity as one does when immigrating. While it provides a safe space, it often means the leaving behind of something else and that something else is kept alive by reinterpreting and merging old histories and traditions with new,” says Córdova.

In conjunction with her poster series, the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries will present, Song4Sanctuary. Artists Sofia Córdova and Matthew Gonzalez Kirkland (aka XUXA SANTAMARIA) will compose and perform an experimental score which interprets popular music traditions from the various Diasporas under Sanctuary protection in San Francisco and its environs. The piece is accompanied by movement from dancer Stephanie Hewett. Performed in San Francisco’s City Hall on Monday, November 26, this work comments on the monumentality of the space--both architecturally and politically—while sonically filling the space with a work meant to evoke thought about and center the lives of those protected under Sanctuary and still living in the shadows. 

The posters will be on view through January 31, 2019. For more information, visit


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