The word sanctuary is one of the defining terms of our historical moment. The word. In the face of virulent Trumpian xenophobia, jurisdictions including cities, towns, and universities have declared themselves sanctuary cities. They are limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities so as to protect people whose only crime is fleeing intolerable circumstances to find a better home for themselves and their families.
Sanctuary, with its connotations of refuge and home, seems to be a particularly feminine concept. Women have always been the keepers of the home. I’ll leave it to others to argue about whether it is essentially our nature or whether it is what we’ve been conditioned to do. What is true is that many of us have reveled in that role, and have done it lovingly, in spite of the fact that it has paid little or not at all and does not come with the recognition, fame, money, and power of occupations mostly held by men.
It may not be known to those who spend little time thinking about animals in terms other than their use to humans that an increasing number of animal sanctuaries have sprung up in the recent past. These are not zoos; they are places for which the primary, in fact, the only purpose is the happiness and well-being of the animals who live there. They are among the very few places in which animals are not viewed by humans as resources or commodities, and where they are given the respect that all sentient beings deserve. They are beautiful places. And though in the animal rights movement, the majority of the positions of power are held by men, the majority of the people who perform the endless work of rehabilitating, caring for, loving, and providing a home for rescued animals, are women.
Art on the other hand has historically been the realm of men. As art historian Linda Nochlin observed in her seminal 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists, “in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education – education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.”
The recent dinner at Sanctuary Bistro to benefit the Women Eco Artist Dialogue (WEAD) was a lovely manifestation of the concept of sanctuary. In the face of millennia of patriarchal social structures that recognize, support, promote, and brand as “geniuses” almost exclusively male artists, Sanctuary Bistro and WEAD put into practice the understanding that what it takes to make an artist great is not necessarily or merely “genius” but social structures that recognize, support, promote, and indeed provide a metaphorical home for women who are producing art.
Isabella La Rocca is an artist, educator, and activist. Her work is part of a long tradition in art and photography: to bring to light and find beauty in the disregarded, hidden, unconscious, or commonplace. Her work can be seen atwww.glissi.org.