Sanford Biggers’ works integrate film/video, installation, sculpture, drawing, original music and performance. He intentionally complicates issues such as hip hop, Buddhism, politics, identity and art history in order to offer new perspectives and associations for established symbols. Through a multi-disciplinary formal process, and an equally syncretic creative approach, he makes works or ‘vignettes’ that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are conceptual. I got to know Biggers through a sort of patchwork of conversations as I interacted with him and his work over the years.
Writes Sasha Dees.
Sanford Biggers: A quilted conversation
When I visited Sanford Biggers at his studio for the purpose of this article I wondered how he became interested in the arts as well as what inspired him to travel. Only 5% of all Americans actually held a passport in the nineties. The Los Angeles born and raised Biggers not only had one of those passports but audaciously used it to travel to residencies in far away places like Japan, Hungary and Poland with divers commissions and grants. All for long stretches of time.
Biggers credits his family and upbringing for his introduction and interest into the arts as well as his broad international life and perspective. Biggers calls his dad a Renaissance Man. As a neurosurgeon Biggers’ father performed numerous brain surgeries but he was also a philosopher, vivid reader, art collector and international traveler. Biggers grew up in a house with art on the walls that spoke to his history. The works of Romare Bearden, (cousin) John Biggers and (highly under appreciated) stargazer Elizabeth Catlett were all there to be seen every day in plain view.
Biggers’ family originated in the south and started out with little in terms of means. They worked their way up the social ladder with conviction and determination to forge a new life as highly skilled professionals who eventually settled in an upper middle class community in California. Early on Biggers’ father exposed him to different cultures and would take the family outside of American borders. Summer holidays were spent in locations from Hawaii to Copenhagen. Encouragement and stimulation to get a college education, become an artist, and travel internationally; this was all embedded in Biggers’ life. He was exposed to a great deal of things because of his visionary, persistent hard-working parents and grand parents. Biggers applied that exposure, getting his Bachelors at Morehouse (1992) and then moving to Japan for several years to study Zen Buddhism.
Biggers and I arrived in New York around the same time. My first encounter with his work was at the start of his professional career. After a residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem (SMH) he was selected for the now legendary ‘Freestyle’ exhibit (2001) which was curated by the then newly appointed Thelma Golden.
A small world… (Excerpt), Sanford Biggers & Jennifer Zackin (1999-2001) silent single channel color DVD single channel projection.
Like Biggers, I grew up with hip hop culture and was working in Amsterdam on projects informed by that culture. A show called ‘Freestyle’ was hard to pass up…
I lived in a creative environment in Amsterdam where I was part of a culturally-diverse-hybrid-community and ‘A Small World’ made me cringe. Works like this make my heart skip a beat and leave me extremely uncomfortable and utterly powerless regardless of the ‘hybrid life’ I had created for myself. I personally believe that art has a duty to spark dialogue and ‘A Small World’ certainly met that criterium.
Biggers’ new media work; ‘A Small World’, not only kick-started his career but also ushered in the first white artist, collaborator to exhibit in SMH, Jennifer Zackin. The work was a split screen video showing childhood memories that depicted a clearly divided black America juxtaposed with a white America. It left the viewers (black or white) wondering about the longevity of racial division and (even now in 2014) it still prompts us all to question whether or not and to what degree racial divisions still exist in our lives.
My next encounter with Biggers was again in Harlem this time at Triple Candie. ‘A Prayer Rug’, the work Biggers made in 2005, made my heart smile.
Prayer Rug, 2005, colored sand poured unfixed directly on floor, 40ft X 20ft.
I was in New York when 9-11 happened. Being born and raised in Europe means that war and calamities are engrained in your DNA. The aftermath and specifically the media that surrounded the tragic event had more impact on me than the event itself. In my life there’s always room for multiple views. I feel there really never is just one side to things. The media, especially in America, don’t seem to leave much room for dialogue, subtlety nor space for different views or respectful co-existence. I find it generally to be a case of “you are either with or against us!”
Islam is beautiful and meaningful for a lot of people worldwide and leaves many people feeling extremely empowered. In the same way that many people feel about going to church. The hours of work and meticulous focus Biggers and his assistants must have put in this fabulous bright colorful work contribute to its value. The process of making this work, the hours of sand slowly slipping through hand palms must have been a meditative moment for all working on it. ‘The prayer rug’ evokes a moment of truth, and a peaceful moment. It brought on a totally opposite view to what certain war-monitoring media networks bombarded us with after 9-11.
It took another good five years to continue the conversation with Biggers. While working on a project in Los Angeles I drove up LaBrea to be confronted with a huge minstrel smile on top of a building.
Cheshire, undefeated store on Los Angeles’ 1st Ave & La Brea Boulevard, 2010.
I just had to stop and take a picture for a musician friend, back in Amsterdam. Years before he had asked me to check out the proposed campaign for his upcoming album. The campaign consisted of this huge minstrel smile that went with the title of his first single ‘Maak me Blij’ (‘Make me Happy’). Having been part of many discussions in the black intellectual community I worked with in NY, I confronted my musician friend and asked him how on earth he could agree to this image representing him in 2003? In return I received total bewilderment as my friend had absolutely no clue as to what I was talking about. ‘Cheshire’ in 2010 spoke to me intimately, as duality has been a big part of my life and often both sides will resonate with me.
‘Cheshire’ is a perfect example of the multiplicity of objects and symbols and the surrounding complications. When ‘Cheshire’ was exhibited in Germany, hanging in a tree, the association –for most of the viewers- had been to Alice in Wonderland.
When exhibited in the South of America it received an entirely different meaning as the viewers in the South immediately made the association with “strange fruit”, the many lynching and other horrors that took place there.The Cheshire grin has many interpretations and depending on the context the viewer encounters the smile with, it has multiple meanings. The real message lays in the information you might get after the encounter with the work and what the viewer does with their newly found awareness of these other interpretations and meanings.
Biggers went on to use the Cheshire grin in different forms throughout his works. The Cheshire Grin returned in, ‘Sweet Funk’, the introspective at the Brooklyn Museum (2011/2012). The individual pieces of the past decade had become one body of work. It now feels as if he had subconsciously paid homage to the artists on the walls he grew up with. It seemed like the framed works of his childhood had taught him the importance of art as documentation. Biggers in turn had paid tribute by documenting and sharing his experiences which also informed Contemporary America.
Lotus, 2007, etched glass.
His oeuvre contains many layers, and there’s a lot to gain for viewers who are willing to stand still and really experience it. Having stayed in Japan for some time myself I also welcome that layer in his work, the peace, the paste of life, and the esthetics.
‘Lotus’ most literally shows the duality in his work by the use of known mainstream symbols. When approaching ‘Lotus’ from afar your first reference is the beauty of the lotus flower but coming closer you see that all the petals are the cross sections of slave ships. When I produced theatre in Amsterdam we often used this Wow-and-Ouch-effect. Draw your audience in with beauty to then confront them with a harsh truth. Show and tell, but leave space for the audience to have it sink in. Give them a choice when and how they want to engage with what you’ve shown them.
‘Blossom’, 2007, also featured in ‘Sweet Funk’, is now part of the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
Sanford Biggers Blossom, 2007. Steel, Zoopoxy, silk leaves, wood, piano with MIDI system.
I always make a point to spend some time with it when I’m at the Brooklyn Museum. I secretly want to, in that moment where the player seems to have run off somewhere, set the bench up straight, slide behind the piano, stroke the keys and play a quick 2 handed C-scale.
Trees and the piano have been part of his work from early on. He started during his residency in Skowhegan. Inspired by the nature that surrounded him he would drag a piano all over the woods and play his own composition “sans robe” (as he calls it) and video tape himself from the back. ‘Blossom’ derives from that. Even though we hear his version of the strange fruit tune and the piano is not standing but hanging I seem to gravitate to the Buddhism in the work. It always gives me a feeling of peace as if I had only to stroke the keys and play that C-scale, and all racial division would vanish. Then we would just sit under the tree and feel that moment of enlightment.
Biggers continues to build his body of work as well as talk about it, which all contributes to documenting.
Vex, 2013, repurposed quilt.
The past two years I became more aware of the importance of his quilt work as well as the scope of it all. During the visit he told me he has made over 35 pieces by now and they have been exhibited extensively most recently one in the Studio Museum as part of the ‘Shadows Took Shape’ exhibition, a dynamic interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afro futurist aesthetics.
Time: Past, present and future, is another one of the layers in his work. He uses objects and symbols from the past and merges them with contemporary times, like hip hop culture (yet another reoccurrence). His reference to hip hop culture can be observed through his use of objects and materials like spray-paint applied to his recent quilts and more abstract paper works. He patches, uses samples, and as he told me during the visit, he sometimes revisits works, expands, takes a part or re-cycles, after it comes back from an exhibit. We also hear and see it in his performance pieces; the references in the videos; as well as the collaborations with DJ’s. Lately insiders might have recognized the more subtle reference in the title of his ongoing exhibit ‘3 dollars and 6 dimes’ (from an Erykah Badu song) in Miami.
Back to time, his ‘Codex’ quilt series being a perfect example, the spray painted star charts for future travel in galaxies printed onto the antique quilts is to be used as navigation signs from the Underground Railroad which connects that great history to a greater presence in the future. A subtle yet telling story brought to us in symbols, code, use of materials and objects.
Codex (quilt detail, repurposed quilt.
Biggers complicates the work by his use of personal experiences that might have nothing to do with America. Next to clouds of cotton on the antique star charts quilts we can see forms that are influenced by the Edo Period in Japan. By doing so Biggers documents not only ancestry but also his own present life as yes a black man, but really as an American citizen, and mostly as an international artist, period. These documents are left for future audiences as well as future artists to react to. Biggers himself said he likes the idea that future artists will expand on and re-use his work. Coming from hip hop culture and graffiti, he feels this would be a great compliment to him, a telling fact knowing that in the traditional mainstream art world this would be taken as an insult or even crime.
In his performance pieces he likes to share the stage with a big group of loyal collaborators. In the ‘Moon Medicine’ performance in the Atrium of Lincoln Center (April 2014) he was on stage playing keyboard.
Moon Medicine, 2014.
For me it felt so special to see him collaborate with amongst others Martin Luther on stage and Imani Uzuri on video.I was there in the audience with collaborators like Vernon Reid, Freedome Bradley and Rich Medina that though they were not part of this show they made a point to come out for it. Being there experiencing the piece, with smiles of recognition, shouts of confirmation and dancing as affirmation, it all felt like a historical moment of celebration.
The ‘Moon Medicine’ project brings together Biggers’ love for both music and art, making him the interdisciplinary artist that he is at heart. Biggers chose art as he struggled with his piano lessons feeling the constraint in the classical idiom he had been taught. In his art he felt he was free to improvise like Monk did in his music. His love for music however is deeply rooted in him, so interdisciplinary work is really truly the right fit for him. We hear his compositions and recordings in his installation work and he collaborates extensively with musicians in his practice.
At the studio visit this May, we talked more about what the future holds. Biggers spoke of his upcoming trip to Senegal and Ethiopia to shoot the last part of his Trilogy ‘Shuffle, Shake, Shatter’, about the formation and dissolution of identity. It’s a long-term project that started during a residency in Germany in 2007 and it features Ricardo Camillo, a Brazilian-born, Germany based, choreographer, clown, stuntman; he met on a bus.
Yemanjá I (production still from Shake). 2011. Digital C-print. 2/10 + 3 APs. 20 X 30 inches.
‘Shater’(yet to be shot) takes place between Senegal and Ethiopia as Ricardo transcends his body to become an entity or aura. Is it the end or is it a new beginning …. This is the duality we keep encountering in Biggers work.
He used his first research trip to Ethiopia (2013) to also work on a current billboard project in New Orleans that talks about manifest destiny. He asked everybody that went on the trip with him what that phrase meant to them. He then used images from Ethiopia that would somehow speak to the theme and transported them to New Orleans, where I saw most of them.
The Great Afar, 2014, The Manifest Destiny, New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Cheshire grin billboard in Los Angeles had true stopping power. This time around it was hard to grasp his message, given how the billboards (ten in total) are placed and the manner in which they are spread out. In New Orleans I sometimes had to drive back to find the location that was marked on a map.
I also caught a glimpse of a future of more abstract quilt paperworks for the upcoming exhibit in Aspen, opening in June.
Study #17 (No Ordinary Day), 2013, assorted textiles, latex paint, spray paint on archival paper 24 X 36 in (60.96 X 91.44 cm).
By now Biggers has set the codex for his work in the manner that it has been exhibited, written about, discussed and documented over the past fifteen years. There is a confidence that his audience will make the right association and still see the layers as he now ventures out into more abstract works. I am definitely intrigued but at my studio visit in May it was also obvious it was really too early to tell. Paperworks were all over the place on the floor, the walls, with him negotiating his way around them all, pondering his work in progress…
I look forward to continue my conversation with Biggers.
See Biggers work in 2014:
Still in June: Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, The Great Afar, New Orleans, LA;
Till July 5, 3 Dollars & 6 Dimes. http://www.davidcastillogallery.com/3-dollars-6-dimes/;
June 27 – July 20, 2014 Baldwin Gallery, Aspen, CO. http://eventful.com/aspen/events/sanford-biggers-and-alexander-gorlizki-/E0-001-068721184-8
Sanford Biggers was born in Los Angeles, CA and lives and works in New York, NY where he is also an Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s Visual Arts program and a board member of Sculpture Center and the CUE Foundation. In April 2014, he participated in Carrie Mae Weems Live: The Blue Notes of Blues People at The Guggenheim New York and was recently included in the Americana exhibition at The Perez Art Museum Miami. Among Biggers’ many solo exhibitions both nationally and internationally, are the Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center and MASS MoCA. His work has been included in venues worldwide including Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, the Whitney Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, as well as institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland and Russia. The artist’s works have been included in notable exhibitions such as: Prospect 1 New Orleans Biennial, Illuminations at the Tate Modern, Performa 07 in NY, The Whitney Biennial, and Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem. His works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Bronx Museum, among many others.
Sasha Dees (Amsterdam/New York) is an international cultural producer and curator. Sasha is currently producing the art films: Witte Dieren (Simone Bennett, Russia) and Lorca/Casement Project (David Antonio Cruz, Ireland), guest curator for Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten, advisor to the Mondriaan Foundation for projects in USA and the Caribbean (NL), visiting curator for Residency Unlimited and Art Omi (NY), juror for Akrai Residency (Italy), editor -with Rob Perrée- of the planned publication ‘I wonder if they’ll laugh when I’m dead’ on Tirzo Martha (Curacao) and freelance contributor to ARC Magazine and Africanah.org.