Córdova, film still from “dawn_chorusiii: the fruit they don’t have here”, 2021

Chinese Culture Center Video Installation Tells Compelling Refugee Story

The Chinese Culture Center (CCC) and artist Sofía Córdova present  a video installation at CCC’s 41 Ross gallery that is the culmination of a two year-long, community-based storytelling project.

dawn_chorusiii foregrounds the stories of six Bay Area women who journeyed to the United States as refugees, fleeing lives made untenable by political and religious persecution, extreme poverty, and gender violence. Córdova, whose work often muddles distinctions between the documentary and fantastical, intermingles these stories and infuses them with cinematic devices to both enhance and complicate their hard truths.

The project was inspired by a previous collaboration with CCC through the San Francisco Art Commission’s 2018 public art project A Body Reorganized. Córdova was interested in raising questions about the meaning of sanctuary and how it exists in the cultural imagination through the lives of six individuals from various cultural backgrounds living in the Bay Area. CCC arranged for her to meet a Chinese dissident, Tian Shi, who is part of a community of asylum seekers from China’s ‘89 Democracy Movement. Shi was so moved by the interaction and creative process that word soon spread in the community about the project. Several women reached out to Córdova on their own to simply share their experiences and be heard.

Córdova was struck by the need to make space for women from around the world to share their stories of displacement and migration—a perspective often overlooked and unrecorded—and proposed the idea of a long form storytelling project to CCC in order to create a space for immigrant and refugee women’s voices and to engage them in a creative process to amplify their experiences.

For dawn_chorusiii, Córdova and CCC worked through community-based agencies such as Gum Moon Women’s Residence and El/La Para Trans Latinas to find women interested in sharing their stories and participating in an artistic collaboration. Córdova worked individually with each to craft a retelling of their journeys from China, Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and more. She also invited the women to come together for a series of painting sessions so that each could create a large, fantastical backdrop against which Córdova filmed them as they told their stories.

In the final video work, the storytelling takes on layers that seem drawn from the imagination as Córdova jumbles and intermingles the stories, animating some and interspersing them with photos shared by the women that Córdova then painted over and altered. The stories, told using WhatsApp audio recordings, phone interviews, and scripted lines, are accompanied throughout with music meaningful to each woman.

Córdova writes in her artist statement: “There are holes and omissions in this telling. Not all is told or told to conform with realism. This work is about the birds, rivers, trees, fruit, forests, apartment blocks, and the people and streets of six lives and the forces that lead one to leave the treasured and familiar behind. This work stresses that the future and the present and the past are never apart from one another and that borders only serve those in power.”