Sanford Biggers: Music, Afrofuturism, and Re-Envisioning History Interview by Jan Garden Castro

Sanford Biggers sees African-American cultures as part of a global continuum comprised of diverse cultures, symbols and belief systems.

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For example, the tree and the piano are two potent images, symbols and signs that have mythic, historic and environmental significance among several cultures and throughout time. Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, for instance, and this, in some ways, re-members and makes holy the loss of those who have been hanged from trees throughout history in the context of revolutions, wars and racism. Pianos are also made of wood. Trees grow, flower, bear fruits, age and are the subject of many myths – all this makes it an important symbol for the artist.

 Biggers wows audiences whether he exhibits solo, performs with his group Moon Medicine, or gets into conversation with celebrities like Marcus Samuelsson and Yassin Bey (formerly Mos Def) at the Brooklyn Museum. On the heels of his 2011 exhibitions, Sweet Funk: an Introspective (Brooklyn Museum) and Cosmic Voodoo Circus (Sculpture Center in Long Island City), Biggers opened 2012 with The Cartographer’s Conundrum at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and Moon Medicine at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Other 2012 shows include Codex, a solo exhibition at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, featuring constellation quilts that reflect on sky signs Harriet Tubman used to guide escaped slaves north. The artist’s floor piece, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II, is in Emory University’s exhibition Contemporary Mandala: New Audiences, New Forms. His performance group Moon Medicine – which intermixes a video jockey, disc jockey, performance, and music – received a standing ovation from the full house at the Hammer Museum (University of California, Los Angeles) in February.

The Bridge is Over (biddybyebye), 2006

The Bridge Is Over, 2006

The American Academy recently awarded Sanford Biggers with the  Berlin Prize; he has received The Greenfield Prize (2010), the William H. Johnson Prize (2009) and many other awards. His international residencies include Akademie Schloss Solitute in Stuttgart, Germany; Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland, and the ARCUS Project Foundation in Ibaraki, Japan. His installations, videos and performances have appeared at venues such as the Tate Britain and Tate Modern as well as institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. He presently teaches at Columbia University. His website is www.sanfordbiggers.com.

 

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 Jan Garden Castro (JGC): Sanford, would you briefly discuss living in Italy, teaching in Japan and how your interactions with other cultures and peoples affects your work?

Sanford Biggers (SB): I studied in Italy for a year as an undergrad before going to Japan. Aside from the beauty of Florence and the art and history and learning of the language, one thing that really stood out to me was the perspective I gained on the US from seeing it from the outside. It was fascinating how people perceived me on the streets of Italy. This was during the first Gulf War, 1991, and there was an anti-US sentiment in Italy at the time. I found that I could sometimes pass as African and would not get the same flack or scrutiny I would feel when I was with a bunch of recognizable –U.S. students or at an American bar. It made me see myself in a different way. I had the option to be part of a different community whereas I didn’t feel that  this was possible in the U.S. at that point. The most profound thing was that I found myself disliking some things more and also loving some things more.

 

That persisted in Japan as well, but the thing I found in Japan – and it was probably due to where I was mentally at the time – was meeting like-minded Japanese people. On the surface, it would seem, we had very little in common, but it turned out that I met some of my closest friends while I was there. We had deep, deep connections and long conversations about anything from food to music to politics, both Japanese and American, and we discussed ideas of inclusion and exclusion, which are very important in Japan.

 

I started studying Buddhism there and the thing that struck me first was the concept of the Middle Way. The Middle Way was a way of going through life without falling to either extreme – negative or positive. It’s basically about taking the good with the bad. Growing up in the U.S. as an African-American, I learned very early on to travel the Middle Way because that’s the way of survival and matriculation through American society.  Obviously, this not only applies to black people, but to anyone who’s not of the dominant culture.

 

JGC: Do you want to talk about your musical background? How did you teach yourself piano and become a composer?

 

SB: I was always exposed to a lot of music when I grew up. Everyone in my family seemed to be into music. My parents listened to a lot of jazz, gospel and popular blues like B. B. King and Ray Charles. My brother and sister were into the funk of their generation and, later, jazz fusion. My brother is still a musician; he plays bass. I went to an all-white school for the earlier years of my life, which is where I was exposed to the popular music that we all listened to in addition to rock, which was not happening in my black neighborhood. I was thus also listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix and Pink Floyd at a fairly early age and I identified with all those different types of music. I had a very open ear. There was nothing that I would not listen to. So that’s where the interest in music came from.

 

I took formal lessons for a year and a half, maybe two years. I didn’t want to study classical. When I stopped taking formal lessons, I didn’t stop playing the piano. I would sit at the piano for hours with the radio playing, trying to play every tune I heard. I tried to figure out what key the songs were in and what notes corresponded to whatever song it was. I spent hours listening to my brother practice with his garage band. By the time I was in junior high, I had a little band. During break time, my friends and I would go to the band room, pick up an instrument and start to play. I carpooled to school with one of my closest friends and we made an arrangement with our parents to take the money from our allowances and invest it into two turn tables and a mixer. If our grades were good, he would hold onto it for a week or two and then I would hold onto it. We shared this thing and we started spinning at high school parties. I was always very into music – playing it and listening to it.

 

This ultimately led to visual arts. I could play all of these popular songs, but when I started to listen to more jazz, I couldn’t play it. So I started to draw and paint images of the people I was listening to. In my parents’ home, you can see [my] portraits of Ray Charles and John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Aretha Franklin, and so on.

 

 Death Star (not fully operational) 2006

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JGC: Evidently you got busted at 15 for drawing graffiti in L.A.?

 

SB: Yeah. You know, when the hiphop, rap music culture emerged, I was basically about ten or eleven years old and a very limited amount was coming to L.A. from the East Coast. Well, we probably got more than most cities in the U.S., but it was still limited. There was one record store that would sell directly from New York and it was right down the street in South Central. It was called the D. J. Booth and we would go there every Saturday or Sunday to get twelve inches of the newest thing coming out of the East Coast.

Cartographer's Conundrum 22

Cartographers
Conundrum 22

 

Anyway, back to why I was busted. Because hiphop was so prevalent, we all practiced the hiphop arts – deejaying, doing graffiti, breakdancing and emceeing. I didn’t emcee so much, but I was breakdancing, doing graffiti and deejaying. Consequently, I got busted doing graffiti. Soon after, I ended up in A. P. [advanced placement] art classes, and that’s how I got started on a formal art education.

 

JGC: Let’s talk about The Cartographer’s Conundrum at Mass MoCA. First, could you briefly define Afrofuturism?

 

SB:  Afrofuturism is a way of re-contextualizing and assessing history and imagining the future of the peoples of the African Diaspora via science, science fiction, technology, sound, architecture, the visual and culinary arts and other more nimble and interpretive modes of research and understanding.

 

JGC: You turned your cousin John Biggers’ Afrofuturist mural into an installation that was your own reply. It filled a huge space; let’s talk about the upward rising of the musical instruments and translucent pews in that space. Did the floor pieces and mirror stars on the floor, casting shadows on the walls,  allude to particular periods in Afro-American history?

Ghettobird Tunic (full length), 2006

BIGGERS 12b (prnt)

 

SB:  Not so much. The floor was a formal gesture. Because the space is so gi-normous, I wanted to complicate it by creating this optical illusion so that when you’re on the steps above the floor, you can look down and have that perspectival illusion from the cut tiles. That was a way of acknowledging the vastness of the space and trying to create even more. The same with the stars; I was interested in how you can look down and see the stars, but at the same time their reflection is above. So, it’s an “as above, so below” type of thing. The mirrors reflecting the ceiling also create more depth through the floor. But the “church” moment – the pews and the exploding pipe organs – really, that was improvised with objects that I found at Mass MoCA. I found a few church pews in one of the back buildings and moved those into the space. Then I decided to construct Plexiglas pews in the same fashion.

 

I grew up in the church. John Biggers’ work references the church a lot and it seemed like a fitting motif to go with. I think I mentioned to you before that, on my own, I probably wouldn’t have gone into such a religious direction because I’m really not referring directly to a religion, but rather to the architecture of the Christian church. However, I do think that I was influenced by Biggers’ constant allusion to transcendence and the way he makes connections between the African-American church and worship practices and spirituality that he witnessed in Africa.

 

As a side-note, no one has discussed John Biggers in terms of Afrofuturism until now. I had the desire to look at his work through the lens of Afrofuturism. Because the term and the field of inquiry is so new, it hasn’t been applied to older visual artists so much.

 

When I started to learn about Afrofuturism and realized that I considered myself part of that dialog, it made a lot of sense that John Biggers was doing a lot of those things way before the term or that field of inquiry developed.

 

JGC: So as you go forward, you try to resolve or bring into consilience the larger state of African-American histories, world histories and other meanings and symbols, yes?

 

SB: Yes. That’s one thing that has been afforded to European history and American history but black history still only exists in February. Obviously it exists all the time. It’s American history. One of the charges of the work is to look at American history in a more collective way and to redefine and re-imagine history. Afrofuturism does this; reclaims history through these other avenues.

 

JGC: Are there other myths, images or symbols you’d like to explore, or is the field open?

 

SB: The field is totally open now. I sort of think of it as a gateway. I find myself sometimes clinging to some academic or theoretical proposition to create from, as a departure point, and Afrofuturism sort of opens everything up wide. I think it’s in tandem with the post-Black dialog, which is also a gateway.

 

 

 

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