Wide, Floating World
Race Consciousness Subsumed in Universal Consciousness
The Visionary Expression of Sanford Biggers
Ideas from an African American giant of literature are infusing the subject matter of new projects by Sanford Biggers. “Recently I’ve been very interested in the figure — more specifically, invisibility and visibility in the Ellisonian sense, and the physical sense and the gravity of the black body today,” says the Harlem-based artist. Biggers alludes to Ralph Ellison, whose National Book Award winning, 1952 novel, Invisible Man, has a black male protagonist who discovers his identity and how he fits into society (he doesn’t).
Biggers executes this current work in a variety of media. “I've also been interested in stringing subjective, non-linear narratives together through multimedia, video performance, objects and paintings,” he says.
All new works were created for Biggers’ September 1 - 29, 2016, Hither and Yon show at Massimo De Carlo Gallery in London. He describes the pieces as psychological and existential, unconfined by any one time or place, and using materials he has found “everywhere” or made himself. These works include The Talk shown at right.
Multimedia in Detroit
For Subjective Cosmology, September 9, 2016 - January 1, 2017, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), Biggers has created an immersive interactive experience throughout the museum, incorporating video installation, visual art objects, and new media. Imagined as an unseen world made visible, the exhibition gives physical form to hidden landscapes where the past, present, and future synergized into an atemporal experience.
Subjective Cosmology can be seen as the link between Shuffle, Shake, Shatter, a three-part film/video suite that explores the formation and dissolution of identity through the journey and actions of an un-named main character. With the completion of his journey, he will have also retraced — virtually — the North Atlantic slave trade route from Europe to the Americas and Africa.
Throughout his journey he grapples with his identity to the point of crisis, or enlightenment, where he then transcends his notions of male and female, life and death and the corporeal versus the auratic. In Shatter, the protagonist transcends his corporeal existence, shape shifting into an auratic entity.
Laocoön, is a rendition of a previously exhibited figurative work. For his exhibition at MOCAD, Biggers created a site specific Laocoön measuring 30 feet in-length, the largest version the artist has created. Occupying over a quarter of the gallery space, the work is named after a famous Roman sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, depicting a priest struck down by the gods Athena as he warned the Greeks about the Trojan horse.
Biggers created Laocoön in reaction to recent events, including the killing of unarmed black civilians by the police and the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Bill Cosby.
In a February 2016 TED Talk, Biggers cited the relation of police violence to his own personal experience. Noting that he's a university professor, he said he has been confronted by police multiple times, including at gun point.
The piece uses the Fat Albert figure to allude to victims of police violence while also representing the loss of faith in authority and the father figure. Bill Cosby created Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in the 1970's as a vehicle to explore the problems affecting primarily African-American and urban youth, and offer advice on how to avoid the pitfalls specific to their environment.
Sanford Biggers and his band, Moon Medicin, will present two sets at MOCAD in conjunction with the exhibition. Moon Medicin is a multimedia concept band performing original compositions interspersed with re-imagined covers. The collective performs against a backdrop of curated sound effects and images of sci-fi, punk, sacred geometry, coded symbology, film noir, minstrels, world politics, and ceremonial dance.
Beyond Cultural Syncretism?
Spending a lot of time planning his projects, Biggers often works seven days a week. “I love what I do and that makes it hard to distinguish between what's work and what’s not,” Biggers says. “Recently I feel that all my various projects have become one large project. From that perspective, I can then respond to or address specific thematic, philosophical or physical contexts for exhibition.”
Now at mid-career, Biggers does not see this recent creativity as a departure from his prior work. He explains, “It’s a continuation and development, but I think things have become more personal and idiosyncratic. We are in an interesting cultural time, and as an artist I find that there are new ways to talk about current events, political ideas and subjectivity. I feel like I have laid down a foundation for my symbols and aesthetics in previous works and now I can address my concerns in a nuanced, even abstract, way.”
Biggers is a master of cultural syncretism, exemplified in his 2013 "The Floating World," a 30-piece series of screenprints. At Biggers’ command is the iconography of diverse cultures and time periods, expressed with an amalgam of multimedia, mixed media, found objects, three-dimensional installations and live performance.
The cultural elements conflated in "The Floating World" series screenprint shown here are the Buddhist lotus symbol, the diagram of people packed into the hold of slave ship that used by abolitionists to show the horrors of slavery (the diagram forms each lotus petal), and the African American quilting tradition.
Will he ever do mono-medium, mono-culture works? “I used to speak about syncretism a great deal, until I realized that pointing to it essentially undermined it,” reflects Biggers. “I am the product of several cultures, several histories, events and artistic movements. I don't think mono is a possibility for me.”
When the IRAAA last surveyed Biggers’ work, Buddhist themes were predominant — a Buddhism influenced by hip hop culture. That article, “Meditations of A B-Boy Buddhist: Sanford Biggers Talks With Valerie Cassel Oliver,” is in the Asian Persuasion, African American Artists Look East issue of the print IRAAA (vol. 21, no. 3, 2007).
Biggers began breakdancing when he was 12 or 13 and was a part of the flourishing Japanese hip hop community when he lived in Japan in the mid-1990s.
Among the common denominators that he perceives between Buddhism and hip hop is fleeting beauty — for example, the ephemeral aesthetic qualities of Tibetan sand painting and urban graffiti. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi expressess this beauty of weathered imperfection and transience.
Sanford Biggers' artworks from this period include Om 1 and 11 and the Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva breakdancing floor fashioned after a Buddhist mandala and used for a Battle of the Boroughs breakdance competition at Bronx Community College in 2001.
Symbols As Gateways For Larger Meanings
Several of his later works refer to how star-gazing, enslaved African Americans, led by abolitionist Harriet Tubman, sought freedom. Quilt historians Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard believe that during the mid-1800s, quilts were used as signposts guiding north-bound runaway slaves to safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Their research has been challenged by other historians. Even if the quilt signposts are mythical, not historical, they magnificently sparked Biggers' imagination.
In his 2013 Codex, Biggers painted star maps and the Buddhist symbol of the lotus blossom on 18th- and 19th-century quilts that descendants of slave owners had given him.
Like mythologist Joseph Campbell, Biggers believes legendary heroic symbols are relevant to contemporary life. “The symbol of, say, Harriet Tubman, is really just a gateway for a much larger and transcendent set of meanings that forever evolve as we evolve as a culture,” says Biggers. “Symbols are just the starting point. With expanded consciousness, we can see Harriet Tubman as an astronaut, a leader, a visionary.”
For his recent "Bam" series alluding to police shootings of unarmed people, Biggers collected wooden African figurines, dipped them in wax and "resculpted" them with bullets at a shooting range. He then made wax molds from the shattered figurines and cast the molds in bronze.
Biggers believes the tumultuousness of the present period should motivate artists to get busy. “I think we are in such an amazing time right now. There is so much potential for positive and negative, that it is crucial that artists and creators dig deep and speak their truth and not pander to outside forces. Now is the time for visionary expression all across the board.”
Cliff Hocker is an independent writer who lives in Richmond VA.