African-American artist Sanford Biggers discusses plurality in language and culture

In Codeswitch, an exhibition at California African American Museum, Biggers shares a body of work titled Codex, which melds textile, culture, community and history.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Dec 27, 2021

Sanford Biggers is an artist of African heritage, based out of Los Angeles, America. Biggers has been working for the last two decades on developing a singular body of work which embraces and sinks deeply into the traditions of African-American history. His practice, which weighs itself onto the cultural inheritance of textile, weaves together sacred geometry, urban American symbology and contemporary art. His work includes many media like sculpture, woven tapestry and painting. He is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship 2020, the deFINE award 2021, and in 2019 was inducted into the New York Foundation for the Arts Hall of Fame. Biggers shares a diverse body of work, Codeswitch, at California African American Museum, primarily inclusive of textile-based works. Codeswitch opened on July 28, 2021, and closes on January 23, 2022.

Biggers plays with the two and three dimensionality of textile art | Codeswitch | Sanford Biggers | STIRworld
Biggers plays with the two and three dimensionality of textile art Image: Courtesy of the artist

The title of the show is a reference to the act of switching one’s linguistic style from one to another depending on social context - a cultural syntax, if you will. This is a recognition of the plurality of language itself, a notion reflected in the works themselves. Biggers uses ancient quilts to render imagery more current and relevant to his social context. The American tradition of quilt-making resonates particularly sound within African-American communities. A small, insulated Black community in Alabama, known as Gee’s Bend, was known for their centuries old culture of handcrafted quilt production. Biggers is one of the few contemporary artists who continue to uphold this tradition; Faith Ringgold Emma Amos and Sam Gilligam being some of the others.

Biggers plays with the two and three dimensionality of textile art | Codeswitch | Sanford Biggers | STIRworld
Biggers’ installations seem to emerge from the walls Image: Courtesy of the artist

Biggers tells us about experiences during his formative years which introduced him to the form of weaving. He says, “As a child, I would watch my mother sew and crotchet small projects around the house and later, would spend hours with her in the garment district of Los Angeles looking through beautiful fabrics that she would create incredible outfits and fashion statements with the help of her friends. Though I never learned to weave, I did learn what textiles were capable of and developed a bold sense of colour, pattern juxtaposition and optical rhythm. In grad school I hung out with several students from the sadly overlooked Fiber Arts department. I thought the work these artists were doing was amazing and impossible to easily categorise. Here I saw textiles shape-shift between hard and soft, direct and sublime, fragile and durable but always with a hint of ephemerality and mystery. In the early 2000s, I was blown away by the exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts at the Whitney Museum. The work transcended history, race, gender, socioeconomics, form, function and the elitism of the western painting canon. It opened up a universe formal and conceptual possibilities”.

Sacred geometry meets African American quilt making motifs | Codeswitch | Sanford Biggers | STIRworld
Sacred geometry meets African American quilt making motifs Image: Courtesy of the artist

Biggers’ work is an interesting meld of aesthetic vocabularies. His textile-based works emerge from the landscape of the gallery at Codeswitch, a play between the two-dimensional nature of textile and the interaction of it with its spatial environment. His installation works incorporate Escher-inspired tessellation and sacred geometry, juxtaposed with traditional motifs. Biggers says, “Though it started as an African American/Afro-Carribean art form, hip-hop was the subculture that introduced me to interdisciplinarity. The influence of cutting, scratching, sampling, performance, poetry, raw visual expression, improvisation and the irreverence of ‘mash up’ culture are very prominent ideas in my work.”

The artist continues, discussing the inclusion of sacred geometry in his work saying, “Geometry and pattern are universals but their symbolic meanings are often porous and non-fixed from one time period or culture to the next. The Codeswitch exhibition comprised paintings and sculptures that use pattern, geometry, abstraction and language, in the form of titles, that are a codex that I use to explore the ideas found throughout my artistic practice. Codex is literally the title of this ongoing body of quilt-based works”. In Codex, one sees a multitude of visual languages, made up of different colour schemes, pattern combinations and scale formats. The diversity of works is informative and symbolic of diversity in language and cultural climates, however the distinctive differences between visual aesthetics make it a challenge for the viewer to see seamlessness and interconnectedness between works. The range makes it easy to believe the works were each made by a different artist, an aspect perhaps reflective of the multitudes which live within the artist himself, as seen in his work.

Codeswitch | Sanford Biggers | STIRworld
Artist Sanford Biggers Image: Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Morrocco

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