Multimedia artist Sofia Cordova presents voices of refugee women in Bay Area

At Chinese Culture Center’s 41 Ross gallery, ‘They sing, sway and recite poetry’

By Anita Katz

Special to The Examiner

A video installation in San Francisco’s Chinatown tells the stories of six Bay Area women who fled homelands where they faced extreme hardship and journeyed to a United States that has not always been welcoming. Mixing documentary and fantasy, “dawn_chorusiii: the fruit they don’t have here” by multimedia artist Sofía Córdova presents the refugees’ experiences in emotionally immersive strokes.

Córdova’s video installation runs through Jan. 29 at the Chinese Culture Center’s 41 Ross gallery. It runs as a loop so that viewers can enter and exit at any point, but the more time one devotes to the hour-long film, the more rewarding it will be.

“I make my work layered,” says the Oakland-based, Puerto Rico-born Córdova, whose work includes filmmaking, visual art, music, photography, social justice themes and long-form storytelling — and whose interests include migration, climate change, revolution, class and gender experiences.

“I love cutting stuff really slow,” Córdova adds, noting her installation resulted from a lengthy process that involved working closely with her six subjects to build trust and community.

The work consists of a screen on a wall at the back of the gallery on which the six unnamed women, whose countries of origin include China, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala, tell their stories. Each appears in front of a painted backdrop created during sessions where the women talked about their journeys and painted pictures representing their lives.

The video is a “sci-fi movie,” but it’s also more than that, says Córdova, who cites the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski’s “On the Silver Globe” as influences.

The installation was also inspired by a previous collaboration with the Chinese Culture Center through a sanctuary-themed 2018 San Francisco Arts Commission project. That work led to a meeting between Córdova and Chinese dissident Tian Shi, which in turn resulted in several women expressing to Córdova their interest in sharing their stories of displacement and migration. Through community-based agencies such as Gum Moon Women’s Residence and El/La Para TransLatinas, Córdova connected with several women wanting to share stories.

Filmed by Córdova, the women detail how they fled their homelands to escape political persecution, extreme poverty or gender violence. They recall idyllic aspects of their childhoods, along with darker realities, including political terror. They describe dangerous border crossings and awful detentions at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers. One shows us her ICE blanket.

They sing, sway and recite poetry. Córdova interweaves their stories and enhances them with visual and sonic elements.

“I am a maximalist,” says the artist.

The piece additionally includes animation, scripted material, altered photos, bits of phone conversations, geographical footage (of the desert landscape and border patrol dogs, for starters) and camera effects (including back-and-forth lighting resembling border surveillance).

The colorful backdrops feature pictures representing the women’s lives and memories — trees, buildings, family members.

“There is no linearity” in the project, Córdova says. The work presents the women’s recollections as a melange of memories of subjects ranging from bodies of water to grandma’s cooking to shattering loss.

In terms of sound, Córdova, who is also a musician — she’s half of Xuxa Santamaria, a duo that plays emotion-tinged dance pop — keeps the score minimal here and focuses foremost on the voices.

“I was pretty spare with the music in this project,” she says. “The voices were front row center. There’s a kind of percussive quality to the talking. That was the music.”

The voices emanate not only from the screen, but also from elsewhere in the gallery — another element adding density to the work.

“I wanted them to feel like the sharing was being held in softness and care,” she says of the women and her desire to “create a safe and good space” for their stories, a “holding container” of sorts.

Córdova also says the stories she presents, while containing individualistic elements, could generally be those of immigrants and refugees around the globe. Inhumane border situations exist worldwide, she says. And even after refugee status is granted in a new country, struggles — poverty, isolation, hunger, an unaccepting society — will persist.

Córdova’s work has been presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Vincent Price Art Museum, the Wattis Institute and other institutions. The artist has also composed and choreographed performances for the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Merce Cunningham Trust and the Soundwave Biennial.

The 41 Ross gallery is a casual neighborhood art space operated by the Chinese Culture Center and the Chinatown Community Development Center. Córdova noted that presenting her installation in Chinatown is significant, as the San Francisco neighborhood has long served as a sanctuary for immigrants.


dawn_chorusiii: the fruit they don’t have here

Where: 41 Ross gallery, 41 Ross Alley, S.F.

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 986-1822,

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