The origin of the word sanctuary is connected to physical and spiritual spaces (such as shrines, tabernacles and pooja rooms) utilized to perform and experience sacred rights. The common thread within these sacred spaces, is the provision of a sense of protection, peace and goodwill. Sanctuaries can also include the function of non-tangible physiological qualities, like the realization of inner peace, mindfulness and empowerment.
Ideas and manifestations of sanctuaries have been referred to time and again, as individuals, families and whole communities face disruptions and threats to their wellbeing. In recent history (see: Paik, 2017), sanctuary cities have been established, which provide humane protection for immigrants and other vulnerable populations. Schools and houses of worship have also taken heed of how their buildings can and should provide similar protections for their student bodies and congregations (see: Collins, 2020). Those who are seeking asylum in these sanctuaries are doing so for any number of social, cultural, political and environmental reasons. The latter issue has led to the establishment of sanctuaries that preserve wildlife and other natural resources. Museums and galleries also can be considered sanctuaries because they provide custodianship and care for works of art.
Mary-Ann Monforton’s exhibition of sculpture at High Noon Gallery in New York City, examines the semantics of the term ‘sanctuary’ from a few different, yet converging points of view. Monforton’s playful art objects resemble items that might fill a child’s nursery, bedroom or playspace. A combination of nature and nurture is evident in the juxtaposition of aesthetic replicas of childlike objects (i.e. a toy wagon, tricycle and a hula hoop) and the exaggerated likeness of animals. While these images offer an immediate sense of nostalgia and whimsy, there is an overarching poignancy in this imaginary space.
Presented without the content of children, Monforton’s sculptures of children’s objects feel like relics or ruins. Accompanied by sculptures of animals among a forest of tree stumps, signifying habitat loss, this installation is a symbolic depiction of the collective loss of innocence. The youth of today are being born and raised in a world devastated by climate change, pandemics and persecution. Some are destined to grow up and contribute to the viscous cycle of social, political and environmental degradation. Others will be the victims of circumstance. However, many of our developing generations will be directly involved with shifting problematic paradigms and developing systems of progressive social and cultural transformation. The world is getting harder to live in, but resilient and bold intergenerational efforts are proof that the fight for equal and equitable survival and prosperity is worthwhile.
Our educational systems provide a key process in facilitating empathetic responses and critical thinking in regards to the macro and micro problems that impact our daily lives and our future. In his 1963 talk to teachers, James Baldwin stated that “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.”
Teachers scaffold their students’ thirst for exploration and inquiry by setting up a classroom environment that allows for critical discussions and active participation. Artists do this for their viewers by symbolically communicating ideas, emotions and experiences that have personal and collective significance in our lives. Monforton’s aesthetic wonderland inspires us to consider our development as individuals and as a species, while coming to the realization that we need to keep learning and striving for efficient ways in which we can nurture ourselves and our natural world.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Baldwin, James. “A Talk to Teachers.” Delivered October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image”; originally published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, Saint Martins 1985. Accessed 6 December 2020 https://www.spps.org/cms/lib010/MN01910242/Centricity/Domain/125/baldwin_atalktoteachers_1_2.pdf
Collins, Cory. “School as Sanctuary.” Teaching Tolerance Magazine, Issue 65, Fall 2020. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2020/school-as-sanctuary
Paik, A. Naomi (2017). “Abolitionist futures and the US sanctuary movement”. Race & Class. 59 (2): 3–25.