Sanford Biggers on Patching Together the Past, Present, and Future Through Art
To Sanford Biggers, the past, present, and future are intertwined and all part of one big, long now. Over the past three decades, the Harlem-based artist has woven various threads of place and time—in ways not dissimilar to a hip-hop D.J. or a quilter—to create clever, deeply metaphorical, darkly humorous, and often beautiful work across a vast array of mediums, including painting, sculpture, video, photography, music, and performance. “The simultaneity of past, present, and future is always involved in my work,” he says on this episode of Time Sensitive. “I even consider myself a collaborator with history, making work in the present to be unpacked somewhere in the future.” Among his standout works are “Oracle” (2021), a 25-foot-tall cast bronze sculpture that combines a Greco-Roman form with an African mask; his “BAM” series (2015) of gunshot statuettes, which violently reinterpret African tribal figurines; “Orin” (2004), a series of Japanese singing bowls made out of melted-down hip-hop jewelry; and his ongoing “Codex” series of quilts, which have, over his past decade of making them, become an especially potent and ritualistic part of his art-making. Biggers’s work is informed by a vast range of influences, from years spent living in Italy and Japan, to 1980s and ’90s Los Angeles hip-hop and graffiti culture, to Buddhism and monuments.
Earlier this year, at the Chazen Museum of Art in Wisconsin, Biggers curated an exhibition called “re:mancipation,” which unpacked a highly problematic 1876 statue of Abraham Lincoln and a freedman, and this fall, he’s presenting two gallery exhibitions of his work—one at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, the other at Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago (the latter on view through Oct. 28). This week, the Newark Museum of Art will unveil Biggers’s latest outdoor installation “Apollo (Diptych)” (2023), which comprises two three-foot black and white marble sculptures mounted on bronze plinths. Perhaps what stands out most about Biggers is his quiet rigor; neither he nor his art call out for attention. Instead, his subtle works astonish in the multiple meanings—or winks—embedded within that reveal themselves to those who pay close enough attention.
On this episode, Biggers talks about the influence that musicians such as Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder have had on his art; why he thinks of himself as a “material polyglot”; and why religious and spiritual works like reliquaries, shrines, and “power objects” are the bedrock of his practice.
Biggers discusses the ways in which the concept of time manifests in his work, with a particular focus on the Japanese concept of onkochishin. He also discusses the relationship between time and music, and explains why he considers hip-hop D.J.s to be time travelers.
Biggers unpacks his “BAM” series of gunshot statuettes dedicated to Black victims of police brutality, including Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Michael Brown. He also relates some of his own harrowing experiences with police.
Biggers reflects on his childhood in Los Angeles and his trajectory as an artist, from his first solo exhibition at a local high school at age 16, to his time at Morehouse College in Atlanta, to his residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting in Maine, to his time earning his M.F.A. at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also discusses his artist’s residency at the World Trade Center in 2000.
Biggers recounts his years spent in Japan and considers how Japanese culture around gomi (trash), kintsugi, and craft deepened his affinity toward found objects and materials.
Biggers discusses his renowned “Codex” series of quilts, and speaks to how this patchwork philosophy informs his practice as a whole.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Sanford. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
SANFORD BIGGERS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
BAILEY: Oh, man.
BIGGERS: [Laughs] Where to begin?
BAILEY: There’s so much to discuss, and it’s ironic because this podcast is called Time Sensitive and we don’t have a ton of time to talk about time, but I want to get right into it and sew together a few things you’ve previously said on the subject of time. There’s one quote in particular from a recent interview. You said, “I like to think that we’re somewhere in the midst of a simultaneity. Past, present, and future are not in vacuums. They’re all in relation to each other…. For me, that simultaneity of past, present, and future is always involved in my work. I even consider myself a collaborator with history, making work in the present to be unpacked somewhere in the future. And there’s a rarely used phrase in Japanese, Onkochishin—”
BAILEY: You pronounce it much better….
“Which means—similar to the Ghanaian idea of Sankofa—learning from the past to inform the present, to then change the future.” That was so beautifully put. So I wanted to lay that out and start there and just ask, what’s Sanford Biggers’s take on time?
BIGGERS: Oh, time. Yeah. Where to begin with that? Back to that idea of things happening altogether. I think, to go a little deeper into that idea, particularly in how it’s involved in my work, I’m always looking at the past. I’m always looking at history. I’m looking at historical objects, periods, moments, phrases, ideas, inventions, and analyzing, looking at them from a current perspective. And then with that twist of irony that I have somehow inherited by living in America all my life—or most of my life, wondering how it can be tweaked, or how true any of it really is, or how long those truths will exist before they are proven untrue or considered untrue or inconvenient or need to be manipulated and changed to serve other agendas.
So I’ve often said that history is malleable and, in a sense, time is malleable, although time is bigger than history. History is just an increment of time. But I think that relationship is something that we all need to be wary of. And I say a lot of this tongue in cheek, but we literally are watching truths and histories change before our eyes. Things that we were convinced were the truth, the end word, the statement, the period on the end of the sentence. We knew these to be self-evident and factual. And now we are being asked to reconsider those or [being] told that they were wrong or, once again, that they’re inconvenient. Things have to change to serve certain agendas and certain apparati.
That being said, I think my work does that, too. I started pursuing that in my work years ago, before I started seeing how rapidly the change of our beliefs or the victimization of our beliefs started to occur. So now I don’t know if I’m ahead or in sync or behind that conversation. I guess it’s all unfolding now. And I guess that’s where the future comes in and that idea of simultaneity.
BAILEY: There’s this great profile of you in The New Yorker by Vinson Cunningham, and he describes “a beguiling tone that stretches across Biggers’s eclectic body of work: an almost placid surface giving way, over time, to a dark, ambiguous joke.” This, I think, says so much about time in relation to your work. [Laughs] Could you talk a bit about that?
BIGGERS: Sure. I think, in some ways, the work I make is maybe a proto punchline.
BIGGERS: There’s definitely some type of humor you can glean from the work at any given moment, but the real question is, what does happen in the future and how is that work read? What will be in favor and which will fall out of favor? Because all of those seem to be inevitabilities at a certain point. And tone. Tone is also a very important aspect of creating, to me.
I never wanted to be an artist that just worked in one series and just kept making the same thing, and maybe tweaking a little bit here and a little bit there. I like to think of it more as a classic album. An album has all of these dips and dives and catharsis and peaks and valleys, and ultimately, I want my oeuvre to have that, as well. Humor is a big part of that, but sometimes there is knee-slapping humor and sometimes there’s more dark humor, black humor specifically, entendres intended and everything. I’m really into that.
BAILEY: You’ve also mentioned before that you have a certain anxiety about time—that you want more of it, basically. It seems like this is a feeling of you looking both far into the past and into the future, but being firmly grounded in the present—to the second almost. Is that how you see it?
BIGGERS: It’s a recent phenomenon, and I think it’s basically, after becoming a father, number one. And the second aspect is losing both of my parents in the last five years. So a sense of mortality and also, speaking of humor, I was laughing and didn’t consider time at all for years, and then all of a sudden, I turn around and I think, “Well, is the joke on me?” Time always catches you, right? So I think that sense of mortality, it’s real. I am over 50 years old, so it’s something to consider. And what am I able to do? What am I able to leave behind?
BAILEY: Talking about time with you, we have to talk about hip-hop. And we’ll probably get into hip-hop a bit more later, too. You’ve said that you consider hip-hop D.J.s to be time travelers. Could you elaborate on this D.J. quality of your work—because I also think that there’s a time-traveling element of your practice—and this notion of a D.J. as a time traveler more generally?
BIGGERS: Sure. Well, I see the D.J. as also related to a jazz drummer or an improvisationalist, in the sense that they’re time travelers because they literally stretch and bend time. And drummers do this—as you know, from personal experience—
BIGGERS: And musicians do this. You see it very blatantly in jazz, because that is one of the hallmarks of jazz, to be able to shift and change things and to break the norm and break the pattern.
And D.J.s, specifically, literally queuing up and changing pitch and changing time, and then taking old records that may have been played at one tempo before and chopping and screwing and slowing them down and turning them to a different tempo, or even taking small pieces from any of that and changing the pitch up or pitch down. So D.J.s and producers, especially with music today, it’s all about time and bending time and traveling through time in that sense.
The D.J. also has the added mobility of playing things from the present and playing things from the past. So even referentially speaking, they are traveling through time. And where that comes up in my work is thinking about movements, and references, and inspirations in the exact same way. I don’t hold deference to things that were made thousands of years ago. I look at them as just another tool in the tool chest or another color on the palette, and I try not to give them any more power than something that might’ve happened this morning or something that might happen tomorrow, and look at them as all fodder to play with. Because once you start to combine and recombine and mix and juxtapose those things, it suspends your sense of time.
And if we don’t learn from the past, what are we really doing? So we have to put those lessons learned into whatever it is we create, whatever it is that we do, to push things forward. I know it’s ambiguous sometimes, but that is what we all, humankind, do.
BAILEY: You are a musician, too, so I should bring that up here. You play in this band, Moon Medicin, and I think it’s worth mentioning that there’s a certain musicality within your artwork, beyond the fact that you happen to play … one instrument, several instruments? I know you play keyboards and—
BIGGERS: I play keyboards and pianos. So mostly there. Harmonica a bit. Triangle and percussion.
BAILEY: Talk about this musicality and this transference from your music self to your visual-art self.
BIGGERS: Yeah, I think music got me into art in the first place. I grew up trying to play music—playing by ear, largely—and playing with garage bands and playing things that I could pick up directly from the radio. Then, specifically when I started to listen to more jazz as a teenager, I wasn’t able to jump right in and figure it out, because it’s just a higher form of math.
At that point is when I started to draw and paint images of the people I was listening to. So it might be Mahalia Jackson or early Ray Charles or [Charles] Mingus or [Thelonious] Monk or people like that. Just by really trying to make my own posters and my own images to have in my room, I found that I had this ability to create art. And then hip-hop happened, and I started doing graffiti. So there was that.
But all of that, I think, was really inspired by music. I think it’s because that was really accessible to me as a child, and it was in constant conversation amongst my parents and friends of the family, all of whom were lawyers and doctors and not musicians at all. But there was a great admiration for the musicians, because the musicians at that time, on a certain level, were the avant-garde, specifically in jazz. Pop music and all that came a bit later. But even then, there were things that were happening musically, sonically. And in terms of exposure to ideas coming from the African American community, reaching a much larger audience, there was something revolutionary happening. I like to keep that energy, take that energy and try to put it into art, because when I started to really study art and go to grad school and so on, the funk wasn’t there. It was an argument—it was a problem.
BIGGERS: I was old enough to absorb and listen to everything that was being said, but I just disagreed with so much of it. I was like, “I have to find a different way of expressing.” Luckily, I think a lot of those issues are by the wayside now. I think it’s another reason why I’ve always been a multi-genre artist, and I think it might be one of the reasons there are so many multi-genre artists now, is because to work just in one silo didn’t make sense to me.
Just like listening to a musician, I’d love to hear one album that sounded one way and the next album sound differently. I remember waiting every four years for a Stevie Wonder album to drop because it literally was a journey. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I hope he does something like that last one.” We knew he wasn’t going to do anything like that last one. For better or for worse, I attack each of my projects that way, trying to do something mined, something different from experience.
BAILEY: The poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, when he was on this podcast, talked about his time in prison through the lens of The Roots and how every time The Roots put an album out, it was like a marker of time.
BIGGERS: Wow. Yeah, I had that when I was a kid with Prince, as well. A lot of people of a certain generation, younger generations, don’t realize or know how albums used to drop. It was not like singles dropped and then an EP. It wasn’t that type of thing. It was literally an album. And it was a major thing. It would come out and you would not hear anything from those artists for a couple of years while they were making the next album. Whether they had the material already or not, it still was not released for a while, and that was the thing. You remember that. So it was like you waited for that, especially for your favorite artist. So you had time to basically absorb and learn and experience those albums for extended amounts of time before your favorite artist put something new into your head or something new into your mind.
BAILEY: And your brother played bass, right? So you grew up around music in the house. Tell me about that, your relationship with him from a musical kind of….
BIGGERS: Sure. Yeah, my brother was and is a major inspiration to me, but he’s eight years, nine years older than me. So as a kid growing up, he was my first immediate young role model, and he was the coolest thing possible for a young boy. I was like, “I got a big brother, so I’m going to do everything he does. I want to wear my hair like him and dress like him and talk and act like him.”
And he was obviously getting a lot of his information from what was happening in pop culture around him and the new slang and playing bass in a funk band, and then going into jazz fusion, which was a new form of music that was blending popular music and electronic music with jazz, but it was played by virtuosi. So I would listen to him and his band playing, him practicing in the garage, and then I would hide. We had this layout in our house where he had a room on one side of the house, but there was a bathroom nearby, and all the sound from his room would go into that bathroom.
BIGGERS: So when they would listen to Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx records, I would sit in there and listen, because, of course, there was a lot of profanity, so there was no way I could be in the room with them, but I was still listening to them and laughing and trying to figure out what they were talking about. And I think that’s where I got some of my sense of humor as well. It’s interesting how autobiographical, in a weird way, the work I make is.
BAILEY: That’s such a subversive scene, you sitting listening kind of—
BIGGERS: Yeah. Well, you knew something was happening, and you knew it was something that was bad, [laughter] and it was something that was enticing because of that. Yeah, I think that’s an energy that I strive for, too. [Laughter]
BAILEY: While we’re still on time, not that we’ll probably get off of it, but I did want to bring up your “BAM” series of gunshot statuettes, which date back to 2015—“BAM (for Sandra),” “BAM (for Philando),” “BAM (for Michael)” and so on. These works served as a vital way for you to handle the rage you were feeling during that time when you were hearing about, reading about, even in certain cases watching, these deaths of Black victims at the hands of police. You’ve said that this series was a way of having a conversation through materials and through time. I was hoping you might share a bit about this time element within this work.
BIGGERS: Yes. Bear with me. It’s a little hard for me to unpack that, but I will try. On the notion of time, as it relates to that body of work, first and foremost, I should say I knew I would only be making that body of work for a limited amount of time, because, sadly, I could be making that body of work for the rest of my life. It’s very nihilistic in that sense. The work was always meant to be difficult and challenging. It was that way to create it, it was that way to show it, and it had that effect on many people who saw it.
Now, the interesting thing about time, I also started…. I was living in Germany at the time when I started that. I was living in Berlin. And going to museums, seeing works from rococo, Baroque, Renaissance, classical, neoclassical—seeing all of those works. And again, it takes me back to figurative marbles and seeing the monochromatic figurative marble. And that being held not only as the peak of European artistic creativity, but also propaganda.
I’m talking specifically about when those objects become monochromatic, when we start to understand them as monochromatic, because the facts are, many of those were polychromatic. They were painted, they had different colors, there were different color stones, there was different pigments used on them that had worn off over time. So once you have an all-white one, that ends up being very convenient propaganda. It’s like a byproduct of the weathering.
But there’s a certain gravitas from those works that we still feel today when we see reproductions of them. And I wondered and I wanted to see if there was a way to do that with the Black body using figurative sculpture. So I really went all the way back to the basics of classical art, to figure, bronze, stone, finding a way to interpret bodies, Black bodies specifically, now also missing limbs, missing heads, missing appendages, and so on, just like the classical ones. And would they still have that same gravitas, just as a figure alone? Then the added process of making those pieces by shooting them with different caliber weapons also adds a different type of gravity to them.
BAILEY: Which you didn’t do yourself.
BIGGERS: Which I didn’t do myself. No, I didn’t pull the trigger. I set up, I directed for the most part, but I didn’t end up pulling the trigger. There was something about me not wanting to be too cosmetic and too precious and too predetermined on how something ended up looking, and maybe it was something about bad juju.
BAILEY: Where were these original statuettes sourced from? Where did they come from?
BIGGERS: Oh, they came from all kinds of places. Some literally came from markets in Berlin. Some had been in my own collection for years that I picked up in various places. I lived in Japan for three years in the early nineties; I picked up several things there. I lived in Virginia and there was a shop nearby that had objects of dubious origin that were Africoid, basically.
So I would pick those up. So, yeah, when I started to do that project, another thing was to keep the remnants of all those, because after I would shoot them—the remnants I cast in bronze, but I still kept all the original fragments and remnants of those pieces, and I have them still to this day, and for another body of work that will happen sometime way in the future. So once again, back to time, I’m working with objects from a past to create objects of a present, but knowing that parts of them, there’s a detritus from that that ends up being a future work, too. Maybe it’s just the archiving of it that is the work, I don’t know yet, but I kept those because I know there’s more.
BAILEY: It’s fascinating to learn you were also living in Berlin at the time, a city that is pockmarked with its own sense of detritus and damage and—
BIGGERS: Old bullet holes in the wall.
BIGGERS: All the pieces that are still there. Yeah, for sure.
BAILEY: On the Toure Show, when you went on his podcast, you said, “I’m shooting down art history.” You didn’t even say it in a tongue-in-cheek way; you just said it.
BAILEY: And I was thinking about this “BAM” series and the idea of you shooting down art history and this project just being such a powerful, potent example of that.
BIGGERS: Yeah. I forgot I said that, but that actually makes a lot of sense. [Laughs]
BAILEY: I understand that you’ve also faced your own series of incidents with police. If you’re open to it, I was wondering if you might share some of what you’ve had to deal with over the years here.
BIGGERS: I have three incidents that stick out in my mind. All of them involve guns, but without getting into the particulars, because I am conscious of time—and I don’t have to get into particulars, so that’s why I’m actually saying that. And for listeners who…. Black men who are listening, you know this, this is a thing that we call “the talk.” It is that prevalent that I barely even have to explain it. And for listeners that don’t deal with that, you should know it’s that prevalent, that I don’t have to explain certain things here. But the prevailing idea of all that was I had been in different places at different times in different cities, and for whatever reason, there was some suspicion put on me, or somebody else was nervous or afraid. And for whatever reasons, the cops were called. I was doing no crimes in any of these situations.
I might’ve been at a place that was inconvenient, but never at a place where there was a crime. I had no weapons, [laughs] I had nothing illicit on me.
BAILEY: Smile on your face, probably.
BIGGERS: Yeah, smile on my face… Wearing a suit one of the times with a friend of mine going to a party on a New Year’s Eve. I’m getting a little specific now, but just to show you how irrational some of this is, I’m in a car with one of my best friends. We’re dressed up going to a New Year’s party in the South Side of Chicago, but we’d only been there for a month, so we really don’t know the South Side of Chicago.
And all of a sudden, the taxi driver who’s taking us there starts freaking out and starts flashing and making signals with his lights whenever he would see a cop car. And we saw that and we were like, “Okay, let’s just call the cops over and see what’s going on here,” because we’re asking the driver like, “Listen, tell us what we don’t know. We’re new to the city. Should we not be going to this neighborhood? You could be helping us.” But he said nothing, flashed his lights.
Then all of a sudden at the next intersection, you have four cop cars, four cop cars [makes screech sound] just surrounding and blocking us in. We get pulled out of the car and laid on the hood with guns to our heads, cops yelling at us.
Meanwhile, the cab sees another fare, the fare jumps in the cab, and they leave. So now it’s just me and my boy [laughs] in this intersection with cops all around us. And they’re yelling at us and screaming at us, and finally, they realize we’re up to nothing. They leave. Now, we’re in the South Side of Chicago on the street at like 11:58, 11:59, wearing a suit, no one is around. And, of course, as you would expect, midnight happens and you hear the gunshots start going off because it’s New Year’s, right? And here we are in the middle of the street. So I’m like, “Come on.…”
BAILEY: Happy New Year’s.
BIGGERS: … Happy New Year.” Right. So just one, just another night. It’s living while Black sometimes.
BAILEY: In a way, the “BAM” works are memorials. I wanted to bring that up here because your work, including this recent “re:mancipation” show you did at the Chazen Museum of Art, has long explored memorialization or the idea of a monument, going back all the way actually to “Bittersweet the Fruit,” from 1999, which was a memorial to James Byrd [Jr.], a black man who in 1998 was tied to a pickup truck by three white men and dragged to his death in Texas—brutal murder. Could you speak to the memorial threads within your practice and take me from “Bittersweet the Fruit” to this “BAM” series?
BIGGERS: I think I’ve been really influenced by reliquary works and altars and shrines. I spent a lot of time in Japan and Thailand and India and various countries throughout Africa and South America. And I’m always drawn to the religious works—the reliquaries, the shrines, the process, the performative nature of it, the ritualistic nature of it, the adornment of objects, and the power within the objects, power objects—that whole history is the bedrock of all of my objects. No question about that.
So I think around 1998, when I made that piece, it was a way of taking that influence and making an object. But at that time, I still needed to ground it in some way, and not make it an object that was mimicking something else. And once that event happened, it made sense that the work I was doing at the time could be seen, at least by me, as a memorial to James Byrd.
And the piece was a tree. Oh, no, it was a video piece that I did when I was at the Skowhegan residency in Maine. I put a piano in the woods and I would go out every afternoon and disrobe and play the piano in the woods, nude. Once again, just a thing I did. It was a ritual; I didn’t know where it was going to go.
And then the James Byrd incident happened and it started to occur to me that that video itself ends up being some type of eulogy or choral voicings that express a lament, basically, for the loss of his life. And putting that in a tree and seeing photographs of the rural areas that they drove through when they dragged him to his death—there were trees everywhere—it all started to come together, and that became a type of memorial to me.
BAILEY: So, going back to 1970, you’re born in Los Angeles. Your father was a neurosurgeon, your mother was a teacher and raised the three of you. You also had an older cousin, John Biggers, who I wanted to mention here, who was an artist in the sixties known for these large-scale or mural works. His work seemed to have a profound impact on you, to state the obvious. [Laughs] And I understand at some point you got to show him some of your early work. Tell me about your relationship with John and also how you view his impact on you over time.
BIGGERS: Sure. Well, to that meeting, I met him probably six times or so in my younger years. In my home, there were images by artists like Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett and Ernie Barnes and John Biggers. So those were the first early images I saw of art. So that informed me from the start. When I realized that John was an artist and that he was a relative, it was because he was having a show in L.A. and, as I mentioned, my parents and their friends, they were into the musicians at the time and they were into the artists at the time.
We had John come to the house—I think we had him at the house for just a couple of people to say hello. And then we all went a few days later to his exhibition that was at the California African American Museum. We used to call it the Afro Am back then, it’s CAAM now, which, interestingly enough, they gave me a solo exhibition for the “Codeswitch” show a few years ago that was part of that traveling exhibition.
But anyway, I went to that show and there was a day where he’d be there and signing books and so on. So we’d already gone to the opening and saw him there, but I went back another day with my portfolio. And I think he looked at one or two pieces, and I was waiting for critique or some advice and then he just put it all back in the portfolio and zipped it up, and looked me in my eyes and was like, “Why do you do this? What is this for, for you?”
So basically he got to the point being that my intention [was] as important, if not, more important than anything I could ever create. It was a very, let’s say, enigmatic message, but it’s one that stuck with me. And I think it shows in my work, there’s a certain degree of myself that’s very…. I’m very deep in the practice, let’s say. So there’s that.
And then, of course, learning more about his work and seeing more of his work. He was doing figuration before he took a very important trip in 1957 to Ghana, which led him to study African textile and a lot of the creative expressions that he saw there and throughout various countries. Then he started to use pattern and geometry in his works. Then later, when he was back in Texas teaching, he and another professor started to develop a whole, basically a manuscript of sacred geometry the way they saw it. And I found myself…. Once again, I think this started in grad school. I’d already lived in Japan for a few years. I was in grad school trying to find a voice, trying to find a motif to work on, and I didn’t want to go into geometry the way he did.
But I started to look back…. Oh, and this came from a piece of advice from Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, who was at Maryland Institute College of Art, where I did a postbac[calaureate] prior to going to Chicago. She advised me to find a way to put my autobiography in the work. It doesn’t have to be representational at all, but personal experience needs to go into the work. I started to synthesize my time in Japan and my fascination with mandalas and the pattern work there.
I started to basically get my sense of geometry and pattern from those motifs and find different formats. I started with carving out pieces of rubber and making dance floors that look like mandalas and then activating them by having breakdancers perform on them, and then gradually, over time, sand mandalas that looked like graffiti, and then ultimately quilts and finding quilts and repurposing and intervening with those, which is what I’m still currently doing.
BAILEY: I think we should take a moment here for your first-ever solo exhibition, age 16. [Laughter] How did that show happen? What did you show, and what was the reaction to the work?
BIGGERS: [Laughs] So, yeah, it was interesting. Those were a tumultuous few years. So I told you I was already into graffiti, so I was sneaking out of my parents’ house and tagging and doing spray murals in an area that they used to call “The Jungle,” but it has been beautifully gentrified, [laughter] and it’s still deep in the process.
BAILEY: To the listener, Sanford’s graffiti name was Midas.
BIGGERS: Yes, indeed, Midas. Everything I touched. [Laughter] So I’d already been busted for that, had that moment and had been put into the AP art classes at my high school. And I started doing a bunch of paintings. These paintings started because one of the assignments was to just paint people around you, paint your family, paint your friends, so on and so forth. And I came to class one day and I had my paintings and everyone had their paintings, and the teacher was like, “These are great, but everybody’s Black.” I was like, “Wasn’t that the assignment? You said to just paint people who were around you. What did you expect?” And I was laughing when she said it because I thought it was sort of a joke. [Laughs]
BAILEY: I’m guessing all the white students painted white people.
BIGGERS: Exactly. So for that reason, and that reason alone, mine really stood out just on a racial dynamic. And it really occurred to me at that point, it’s like, “Ah, if I were to have painted white paintings, would I be a Black artist or just an artist?” But now that I did the Black…. It’s like the “tree falling in the forest and no one’s around to hear it” type of thing. But it became such a conversation that I think more…. The principal heard about it, not in a bad way. No one got sent to the principal. It didn’t become a big clash or anything. It was just something that stuck in my mind. And it was funny; other people in class thought that was funny, too. It was weird. She was red-faced. She was a bit embarrassed by it; she was like, “I think you’re right.” So we let go with all that. But a few weeks or months later, I got an invitation to show my paintings, or all the artwork I was making in the lobby of University High School on the Westside of Los Angeles.
So that was literally my first solo exhibition. And it was one of the moments that my parents started to think, “Okay, well, maybe there’s something here because we know he spends a lot of time in his room drawing and painting, but these are third parties that now seem to be finding interest in the work.” A few months after that, I was invited to participate in an art competition in Washington, D.C. and I was flown out and the whole thing. So that started a real serious consideration of artmaking for me and my family.
BAILEY: You go on to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, then, as you mentioned, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the Skowhegan School of Painting in Maine. And then finally, the Art Institute of Chicago, from which you received an M.F.A. in painting, although you didn’t really create paintings. We can maybe talk about that. [Laughs] Does anything in particular stand out to you now, looking back on this education journey and the work you’re doing today?
BIGGERS: Yes. While I was going to Morehouse—all-male, all-Black college—there was a weightlessness that occurred because this was the first place that I had ever been or spent time where race wasn’t really a conversation. It’s an all-Black school. There was no need to talk about being Black. It was a lot off your shoulders. You didn’t have to justify yourself. People didn’t look at you strange when you walked into a room. It was all like, “Okay, so we’re just people now. So now what?”
I went there thinking I was going to go into psychology. I was not yet prepared to go strictly into study[ing] art. And it’s a liberal art school, and they didn’t really focus on art anyway, so I started considering myself to be a dual major, psychology and art. I got there, and they didn’t have an art program at that time. So I took all my art classes at Spelman [College]. And by my sophomore year, I had already decided that there was no way I was going to psychology—that I was strictly going to be an artist—and really just turned my focus in that direction.
But my junior year, I left and did an exchange in Italy. I basically conceived of the whole thing because I was looking to get a way to do something a year abroad. And it turned out that Syracuse University had these programs and I was able to apply through them and go. I got everything signed by my teachers so it wouldn’t hold me back—I wouldn’t lose any credits, and so on. But while I was there, I realized something very important was that I ended up being a representative not just of Black Americans, but Americans in general, because the conversations really shifted.
And I would run into African folks that were living in Florence at that time and they would be looking at me like, “We don’t know where you’re from.” And I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll tell you. I’m from New York,” and then we had our own relationship. But then I remember them being treated a certain way and then me being treated a certain way, and if I was with them, I’d be treated a certain way. And if I wasn’t with them and I was with the white students, I was treated a certain way. And if anyone saw the American passport, I was totally treated in a very different way.
And I realized at that point that, to some degree, I was being an ambassador for this country, and I had the ability to have conversations and enlighten people about realities. And I hate to say it, it sounds very stereotypical. A lot of the Black Americans that were there at the time were either entertainers or athletes. So there was a certain narrow scope and expectation.
So when they started to come across people who were not that and didn’t fall into those, it really broadened their perspective of what America might be. And I loved that. I thought there was a power in that, and I thought it was something that actually could help everybody. So I continued to travel. I came back to the U.S., graduated, moved to Japan for a few years, and after I came back and got through grad school, I did residencies for almost ten years, all over the place.
BAILEY: Yeah. One of the residencies I wanted to bring up was the one you had in 2000, just a year before 9/11, at the World Trade Center.
BIGGERS: Yeah. It almost seems like a thing of myth right now. It was the ninetieth or ninety-first floor, if I remember correctly. So we were really, really high up there. And it was an open space and there were several artists there. I’m a night-shift person, so I would work mostly in the evening. And there were a few of us who were on that shift. There were others that were daytime and early morning. So it was like being in a weird dreamscape while we were there, because you were so out of reality. There were no moorings of reality around you.
BAILEY: Your head’s literally in the clouds.
BIGGERS: Your head’s literally in the clouds. You could see helicopters at eye level as they passed by. It was pretty wild. But, of course, four months after I finished my tenure there is when 9/11 happened. And, of course, that even threw that memory and that part of my life into more disorientation, more confusion. It’s hard to even imagine that I was there and part of that, somehow.
BAILEY: What work were you making in the tower? Do you remember?
BIGGERS: I do. [Laughs] The final work that I made there, which I remember mostly because it was definitely the hardest, most ambitious piece that I’d made at that time, was a huge headboard for a king-sized bed that was shaped like a large Afro pick. And there was a large—
BAILEY: [Laughs] Amazing.
BIGGERS: —Life size—larger than life, obviously—larger-than-life Afro pick that was clad totally in black leather and it was attached to a king-sized bed and the bed had red satin sheets and a faux fur comforter on it. And it had a lot of power. People would either stand back away from it, or if someone ventured to touch it or sit on it, then people would gather around to see if there was a performance about to happen.
So that’s when I learned something about the performativity of an object and how its interaction with people literally ends up being a performance, whether it’s intended or not. So I learned a lot from that and I did consider that a power object at that time. It was playing with the notion of [the] power object as well.
BAILEY: Gotta talk about Japan here. You mentioned your early years in Japan, but you also went back for a residency in 2003. Tell me about your “Japan time.” How has that found its way into your work? How is it embedded in your practice?
BIGGERS: Yes. So Japan…. I had a dual life, and you might say that for many people who live in Japan. If you’re familiar with Japan, there is this notion that there is the individual that you are at home and with your family and with your loved ones, and then another individual that you are when you’re in society or at your job. And, of course, it’s a culture that’s based on a lot of deference and formality, which I actually enjoyed some of.
But at night, you’re also able to be yet another person. So you could be at your job all day in your suit and tie, you’re there from seven or eight in the morning all the way to six or seven at night, and then you go with your coworkers to eat and drink. And at that time, you literally can get totally smashed and talk all kinds of crap to your co-workers, or even your boss. But the next day, it’s forgotten.
It’s a social grace that they have, that things that are said during eating and drinking time are left there. And that is the release valve—part of the release valve—because after dinner, you sometimes go clubbing or to other bars, and so on. And so that is the mizu-shobai, or the water business, the nightlife. I had my day job as a teacher in my slacks and shirt. I was team-teaching in Japanese high schools and junior high schools. And then at night, I was part of the nightlife. I had met a lot of interesting characters and friends who were D.J.s and shop owners and restaurateurs and so on, models, and I loved it. It was great.
They also had trash, gomi. When people put out their trash, they wrap it up, they clean it, they put it out in a very presentable fashion, and people can come and take it and reuse it. And these things were appealing. It’s not like the garbage that we have here that literally we throw it out, don’t want to see it again. You could literally furnish your entire apartment by the things you find on the street there. So I started to pick up objects and I started to make found-object sculptures. So that’s where I got my, or deepened my affinity towards objects and found, used materials.
BAILEY: So the “BAM” series kind of connects—
BIGGERS: The “BAM” series, the quilt series, definitely. The quilt series also by thinking of wabi-sabi, the idea that the only perfection is imperfection and the way things age is actually the way they are supposed to be. And that notion of even a teacup that is broken can be put back together.
BIGGERS: Kintsugi, exactly. So you can gild all the cracks and then it still becomes a beautiful object. So that is also baseline with my practice even today.
BAILEY: There’s also this love of craft in Japan.
BIGGERS: Love of craft.
BAILEY: And in America, we’ve maligned craft, I feel like. It’s like, “Oh, cute, it’s on Etsy.”
BAILEY: But people in the art world tend to be like, “Oh, craft. Okay.”
BIGGERS: Yeah. Yeah.
BAILEY: Your practice ingeniously combines art and craft in this way that you don’t even think about the craft element of it. It just is. It’s there. It’s embedded in it and it’s still elevated at this level of art. And that conversation’s shifting a lot. You’ve talked a lot about this.
BIGGERS: I mean, Isamu Noguchi, Martin Puryear. There are lots of material alchemists out there that I think traverse those lines, that conversation between craft and fine art. And, yes, it goes up and down in terms of its popularity amongst the art industrial complex, but I think mastery is the ability to make things look easy, [so] that you have to look so deep to see the level of craft or the level of intent.
BAILEY: That’s like everything in Japan. [Laughs]
BIGGERS: Yeah, seriously. It’s like everything. I think the last time Americans got really into that was when you started seeing packaging from Apple, from Mac—
BIGGERS: —basically, because that’s the same level of care and craft in terms of packaging and display.
BAILEY: Some of your work, if we’re going to make more literal translations or the transition from Japan to your work directly, there’s “Lotus,” there are direct references. Could you talk about some of those symbols, some of those references?
BIGGERS: Sure. It goes back to that conversation with Dr. King-Hammond. I was deeply inspired and touched by what I learned from studying Buddhism while I was there. And I literally lived across the street from a temple that I would walk through several times a week and smell the incense and watch people come and give prayers and alms to their deceased ancestors. I liked how it was so woven within the fabric of Japanese culture that it wasn’t even talked about.
Once again, craft and these things. They don’t have to be talked about. We all have it. I remember a friend talking about Christmas and how excited they were for Christmas. I’m like, “Aren’t you Buddhist?” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, of course, I’m Buddhist, but I’m Christian, too.” It was just that attitude where it was like, “Of course, I’m a….”
So, yes, that Buddhism, those references come back all the time. I consider even the creative process working in the studio as a meditation, a type of meditation. You see the direct references to objects from Buddhism, ritual objects, performance that’s based off of ritual and ceremony.
BAILEY: You should mention here the work you made when you were in Japan, which I think is really interesting, how you melted down this hip-hop jewelry—I guess you could call it “bling”—and turned it into bells. You created your own ritual.
BIGGERS: Right. Yeah. Well, so that was the other thing. It became important to me not to reference these cultural exports, but actually to create things that were generative and idiosyncratic. So when I was invited back to Japan, I had a project in mind. I started to collect jewelry from some of the pawn shops in New York and Harlem, and I took some of that with me and then bought all kinds of blinged-out jewelry that was popular at the time throughout Tokyo with all the hip-hop kids and so on.
With the help of the residency, I was able to find different artisans throughout Tokyo where we were able to melt down all that jewelry to make the alloy to create orin, or basically singing bowls and bells. We made a few of them. Then I was put in contact with one of the local—it was around two hours outside of Tokyo where I was living, but there was a Soto Zen temple there.
I became friends with the head monk, and he agreed to do a performance with me. We invited some participants—I think in total, it was around twenty of us—and we did a bell ceremony that was based off of a simple graphic score that I created and I shared that with them all. Some of us were in kimono and some were just in regular street clothes, and we played these bells and inscribed on one of them was “In fond memory of hip-hop”: “hip-hop ni sasagu.”
So it was a way of commemorating a shift in hip-hop that was happening. And this is early 2000s, so this was before a lot of albums saying “hip-hop was dead” came out. So this was a precursor to that. And the head monk was playing that specific bell that says, “In fond memory of hip-hop.”
BAILEY: I love this idea of the golden age of hip-hop and it’s this gold bell. That’s good. [Laughs] You’ve also spent time in Italy, as you mentioned, and you’ve said that your second language is Italian and your third language is Japanese. There’s this fluency idea here, and it plays up in your work, this mobility between media and… between materials and modalities and languages. How do you view these linguistic gymnastics, let’s call it, and the ability to transition between languages in the context of your work?
BIGGERS: Well, I think working in different materials and different genres is also a polylingual approach. It’s like being a material polyglot, basically. I find that painting might say something very different than sculpture. And even performance speaks a different language and playing piano is a different language, but all of them can create very complex narratives, complex stories, and so on, especially when put together.
So I think having that occur at a very early age—I was exposed to Italian in undergrad and then Japanese right out of that—I was young enough and my mind was facile enough to pick up those languages, but it also opened my mind and my hands and my creativity to really want to try a bit of everything and try to find my voice throughout those various material and process languages.
BAILEY: I love that you’ve described it as “material storytelling.” Glenn Adamson might call it “material intelligence.” I love this notion, because I think we often don’t think of language as material or history as material, but that’s really what your practice is all about, using history and language as material.
BIGGERS: I’d go even a step further and say meaning is a material, too, because by using those various languages…. Anyone who speaks multiple languages will tell you that “This language says things about love and passion very well, but this language doesn’t.” “This language gives commands and asserts power very well, but this language doesn’t. This one is more of a party. It’s a singsong. It makes you feel good.” So languages, they often have different tones, right?
By using the materials and the combinations that I use, I’m not really trying to create one meaning or a more obscure meaning. I’m actually looking at the third meaning—what happens when those other two meanings fall short? What is the third meaning? And that’s something that I can’t predetermine. That involves the viewer, specifically.
BAILEY: Listeners who know your work are going to probably be surprised we haven’t really talked about quilts. [Laughter] You’ve mentioned quilts a couple times, but this was by intention. I intentionally wanted to save this for the end of our interview because you’ve said so much about this “Codex” series of quilts. And so much has been written on it. It’s almost hard to find new terrain, but there still is new terrain.
You’re continuing to make them; they’re currently on view in two exhibitions [one at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, and one at Monique Meloche gallery in Chicago], I guess one of which will still be up when this episode is out. You’ve described yourself as a late collaborator on these one-hundred-plus-year-old quilts. I was hoping you could go deeper on that idea, the idea of communicating with ancestors, or people of another era, and communicating with the dead across time.
BIGGERS: Yes. Well, I think that goes back to the power object. I think it also goes back to the reliquaries and the altars. When you see those shrines and altars, there are usually keepsakes and nostalgic objects from either the individual who’s doing the worship or from the deceased ancestor or things that the deities that they might be worshiping like, whether it be rum or newspapers or peanut butter, whatever it might be.
And I think there’s a similar thing that happens with quilts, especially old quilts. It’s an instant flash of nostalgia. Everyone thinks, “Oh, my grandmother’s quilt.” They no longer see the quilt that’s in front of them. They think of the quilt that they are accustomed to. And nobody ever wants to throw them away. They always want to give them away, donate them, or find somebody else, but no one really wants to just put it in the trash. So there’s a power there. A quilt definitely is a power object in that way. And it’s also a receptacle of power. It holds bodies, literally, and it’s made by multiple hands to then hold those bodies.
So it makes me think…. Not to sound macabre, but it goes back to mummification. It goes back to all these very visceral, physical, collaborative, performative ritual situations. I consider myself a late collaborator because being that these were made potentially a century or more in the past, I’m stepping into the space-time continuum of their objecthood.
Intervening on them is something that we are looking at now, but, of course, this is something that could be mined and looked at by some future ethnographer, who can then try to figure out the story, the lineage of that piece. That’s where it gets really interesting. It no longer just stops in Philadelphia 1883. It picks back up in 2023. And who knows what happens to it in the future? And my notion of being a collaborator, it could be…. I’m not the kind of collaborator that’s just going to take it and put one dot of paint on it. I’m actually doing some transformative stuff to it. But the basis of my work is still the groundwork, the blueprint that was left by these other artisans in the past. And you even see in the shows that are at Marianne Boesky and Monique Meloche right now, my quilts become more and more transformative as it goes on, but I still keep the essence of the original one.
And that’s to play between the notions of the soft geometry and hard geometry and craft and fine art, and all of those ambiguities. These really get deep into the ambiguities, I think. I think they can be problematic in a way. I think I am a total vandal, but at the same time, I am doing the kintsugi on these and gilding them. To me, that creates a tension, a certain type of tension, and I like that tension. And even bringing the quilts into the three-dimensional—well, they’re already three-dimensional—but in the sculptural realm, is a way of also creating more ambiguity. No longer two-dimensional, no longer flat on a bed. Sometimes they’re rippled and they’re formed and they’re shapes, and they become active participants in a way.
I think another interesting thing about the quilts, and this, I don’t believe, has been talked about that often, is that it has really influenced my studio practice, because now I look at everything I do as a patchwork. It’s not the literal patchwork that you see on a quilt, but it is the patchwork of time and the patchwork of history and the patchwork of language and the patchwork of travel and experience.
So even my marble works where you’re literally seeing Greco, Roman, African, pre-Columbian—I can go on and on—influences and references. Those were all patchworked as well. And I try to do it in a way, the same way I approached the quilts themselves, to obscure what the original form was and what my intervention was, so that it’s not just pointing a finger at one thing, but actually creating a totally generative new work that is unique in its own right. But it is the receptacle of all those influences that go in.
BAILEY: D.J. [Laughs] Sanford, thank you.
BIGGERS: Thank you. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on September 27, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Gioncarlo Valentine.