In the winter of 2005, the famous Bulgarian conceptual artist Christo erected a series of curtained structures throughout New York City’s Central Park in an installation he called “The Gates.”
Christo died on May 31 at the age of 84, and so he was on the mind of Santa Cruz artist and activist Sara Friedlander when she and her cohorts in ARRT (Artists Respond and Resist Together) were looking for a way to symbolically express grief, the predominant theme of the year 2020.
The color of Christo’s large-scale art installation had struck Friedlander. It was saffron, a lush shade that exists in the spectrum between yellow and orange. Saffron has deep symbolic power in Hinduism and Buddhism.
So, the activists of ARRT are calling on Santa Cruzans to borrow a page from the yellow-ribbon playbook and tie a saffron-colored ribbon or cloth to a prominent spot outside their homes as a sign of community remembrance.
The idea came about in late May when the organization was looking for a way to mark the milestone of 100,000 Americans dead from Covid-19. While they were deliberating, American streets erupted with protests against police violence.
“And, then we thought, can we even talk about Covid with all this other grief going on?” says Friedlander. “That was when someone came up with the idea to express mourning, doing like the yellow ribbons.”
Yellow ribbons were originally used to express hope and solidarity with American hostages held in Iran in 1980, and the imagery was again appropriated during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. ARRT’s idea is to express mourning using saffron ribbons or cloth and the names of someone who has died in the Covid-19 pandemic, or someone who has died at the hand of police, or the name of of Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, the Santa Cruz County’s sheriff’s deputy killed in the line of duty on June 6.
“We thought this would be a marvelous way to bring the community together in our grief and our sense of protest,” says Friedlander.
It’s important that symbolic expressions have artistic cohesion, says Friedlander. “If you have a uniform color and a uniform sensibility, then people can really pay attention to what the message is. The idea is that it can be beautiful as well as catching people’s attention.”
Saffron ribbon and cloth isn’t easy to find, says Friedlander, but it’s available online, or white fabric can be dyed with turmeric. “What we’re asking people to do given that we’re all still relatively house-bound is to post images on Instagram.”
Saffron, says Friedlander, is “uplifting but solemn at the same time. Because I’ve been to Thailand and I’ve seen Buddhist monks in robes of that color, it’s always very touching and moving to me.”