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Sanford Biggers BAM (2015)
A still from "BAM" (2015)Sanford Biggers

Art that lifts the lid on today’s Black America

Artist Sanford Biggers goes head-to-head on issues like Black Lives Matter, race visibility, and history with poet and friend Saul Williams

Finding a way to discuss the uncomfortable issues that Americans are often too quick to shy away from – whether he’s addressing police brutality by shooting African figurines in “BAM” (2015), anti-black violence through a ‘breathing’ but face town sculpture of Fat Albert  (“Laocoon”, 2015) or slavery (“Lotus”, 2007) – Sanford Biggers is pushing necessary dialogue about black lives, living conditions and social change in America into public consciousness.

Entering the art world through a fascination with painting, the now-multidisciplinary artist began immortalising famous African-American icons like Harriet Tubman on canvas. “People would see them and be like ‘who’s that?’ and I was able to give them some background. That’s what sort of got me interested in using art as bringing up issues. But I actually just love art; I love getting my hands dirty and making things,” he tells me when we catch up in Arizona, where he is showing his work at FORM Festival in Arcosanti. But there’s no denying politics aren't firm in the heart of his work. “It was about starting a dialogue and also creating a document, of a different take on American history.” Referring to the ‘little bit’ that Americans are taught in schools, he believes there’s also a lot left out – not to mention the voices where such stories are coming from – “you don’t have that many alternatives out there for people to digest.”

During the three-day-long event, he paired himself with the equally vocal and enlightening, longtime friend, muse and poet, Saul Williams, to talk about his work and the conversations surrounding it. Below is an edited segment of that dialogue.

“Sometimes it’s way more fucked up than I imagined. Sometimes it falls flat ,and sometimes it just resonates” – Sanford Biggers

Saul Williams: I just want to say your work is fucked up, man. It's really fucked up (laughs).

Sandford Biggers: Why... thank you.

Saul Williams: What I like about Sanford’s work is the juxtapositions. When we see the Krump dancers juxtaposed with the Nigerian wrestlers, you'd see the face makeup and the preparation ritual and the dance ritual and how it's likened to this Krump dance form which is kind of out of California, out of LA… juxtapositioned so that you look upon the ground that we tread upon every day – or break dance on – being brought into galleries and art spaces and what have you; the juxtaposition between the reality where you see heroes getting shot down and also people who are relegated as thugs or just common everyday people, where we are made to question whether they deserve the outcome, and what came upon them… getting shot down and then we have these huge cartoon figures which makes it... I guess more... accessible?

Sanford Biggers: Palatable…

Saul Williams: Approachable… less threatening...and I guess that is my first question; when you are juxtaposing the world of art, expression, converse, visibility, how do you weigh a balance of how much people are willing to take, to digest, in one sitting. Do you weigh that?

Sandford Biggers: Unfortunately, I don't have the golden ratio to make it work. So each time it's a challenge, each time it's an experiment. I think that's one of the reasons I work in several different mediums. It's 'cause you can say one thing in painting that you can't say in sculpture. And you can say something in performance that you can't say in a photograph. And then there's the sweet spot where all of them can sort of work together to create an expression. So, every time I'm just throwing all those into a cauldron and seeing what works. Sometimes it's way more fucked up than I imagined. Sometimes it falls flat, and sometimes it just resonates.

Saul Williams: My next question has to do with the idea of the ‘artist as teacher’, ‘historian/healer’ and what I'm thinking about is the fact that, on one hand, you're doing this great piece of work that stands alone as a piece of work, but then we also know the historical references within it and we're brought up in a way where we feel like we have to know when to identify with these historical references, and so, people are not only being exposed to your work but they're also being exposed, perhaps, to some of the historical realities surrounding this work that they didn't know about. And I wonder whether that is ever tiresome, 'cause I'm sure not only are we talking about the people viewing the art but also not just the collectors, but the curators, and what have you, who don't know the context...

Sanford Biggers: It's a very complicated art language to try and put all these things in and have them meet the mark of them being socially and culturally relevant, yet also able to sort of go into these elite circumstances in museums and then sometimes even be collected by people. And just think about that. Somebody out there is going to buy one of these figures that have been shot that represent all the fucked up shit that's going on right now. That's sort of weird in and of itself.

Saul Williams: So it's a very complicated negotiation?

Sanford Biggers: Yeah but then we're dealing with... this is two days after the gun that shot Trayvon Martin goes up for auction. Right? So I think another thing I was alluding to is this sort of hidden history. It's the history that we're not privy to in schools and the United States, and if we're not learning in here, we're not learning anywhere. So as black children we have alternative lessons going on in the home and in the community to supplement the education that wasn't coming from institutions. So that's embedded in my work; so some things you may not know about – something that happened in American in the 1800s, I throw back at you through the artwork and it's really to have a dialogue. It's not a top-down didactic soapbox-y type of thing. I'm not really interested in that, I don't think that's productive. It's actually creating a safe place for people, like us here, to have a dialogue… Oftentimes when I'm speaking about my work, I'm in universities, I'm in Phillips' auction house, you know – which has a lot of irony in that (both laugh) – you know, I got those blank stares like, ‘what the fuck is he talking about? I just wanna buy some shit’. I'm like, ‘No, you must learn some shit!'

“Somebody out there is going to buy one of these figures that have been shot that represent all the fucked up shit that’s going on right now. That's sort of weird in and of itself” – Sanford Biggers

Saul Williams: I'm thinking of a piece you did – for example, the silent video, right? – so I'm thinking of, I grew up in New York, you grew up in LA, I have a lot of young Jewish friends growing up who were going to Hebrew school on Tuesdays or whatever after school, so they had this sort of cultural training outside of school. My indigenous friends who going to ‘pow wows’ and getting this sort of historical context of who they were outside of what they were being told about themselves in school, or not told about themselves in school, us, as well, we know that, one, Public Enemy has a song called "By The Time I Get To Arizona", right? And we know that that is because the state of Arizona was against the idea of Doctor King's birthday being a national holiday but we also know that before it was a national holiday that for families like my own, and maybe yours too, we weren't going to school on that day anyway. We took off from school way before it was a national holiday. We would take off from school on that day and learn lessons about our history and what have you and eventually the school system and the country caught on to what were already doing because black people were just absent on that day at school (laughs)... so I guess the main thing that inspires me is…. this juxtaposition between worlds and how your creative space is also a learning space. How do we connect that to now? When we're getting into technology and we're getting into the algorithm. I know that me, myself for example, I've been for years touring with poetry, thinking, feeling as if I was walking around delivering some new form of code and that the stanza was the algorithm and I've been wondering if there is a way in which you relate your work to technological advances that we're all experiencing. How do you identify what you're doing with how we're moving ahead?

Sanford Biggers: Once again I think it's still an experiment and I didn't show any of these works. I've done a series of paintings lately and they're all done on antique quilts and these antique quilts are coming from pre-1900 quilts from Pennsylvania, using all the eastern seaboard. And the reason I'm doing this is because, in my research, it turns out that quilts, reportedly, were used as signposts on the underground railroad so slaves were escaping from the south to the north; they come across a safe house and find a quilt and it might be a certain pattern or hanging a certain way, and that was a code saying that the safe house was open and safe to stay in or that it was under surveillance, ‘keep moving’, or even sometimes there were directions embedded in it. And I started thinking of that as early code; you know, we're talking about the black codes which were lost prohibiting black to do stuff, but I consider this another type of black code which was hidden language for only black people to – and Abolitionists, actually – to read. But then I also started thinking of Harriet Tubman as an astronaut because she's reading the stars to figure out how to navigate them in the first place. So in that tradition, I'm taking these quilts and then painting directly on them with spray paint, charcoal, tar, glitter and putting my own glyphs and symbols onto the quilts to sort of add another layer of code to be deciphered somewhere in the future… on some of the quilts I would paint in a hidden QR code so if you ran your phone by the QR code, it would take you to the digital realm and you'd see performances from Moon Medicin – my band – so I was going from really analogue antique into intangible, ephemeral, web-based art form. So it was really sort of transcending media but still being a measurement...

Saul Williams: Which brings me to scarification and the fact that we would look at the beauty of scarification, not realising that these things, symbols, signs, and symbols could be read….

Sanford Biggers: Yeah, absolutely.

Saul Williams: And we could also decipher history from that, or we look at mud cloth, and all of those lines and stripes have meanings and tell stories and what have you and so it is also an act of carrying on tradition and that... And I guess that since we've always been coding and decoding….

Sanford Biggers: I have a question for you and I think it's related. You, yourself, your work, I mean you've been called a poet, a musician, singer... You've also been very inspirational to me. There are so many options of how to express yourself and get ideas out nowadays and I know that you work with different art forms. How do you see that working out for you and what do you see in the future? What do you think are some things that you have access to that you might not have had 15-years-ago?

Saul Williams: Well, the thing that I think I have access to that I didn't have 15-years-ago is just a sense of confirmation that I'm not fucking crazy. I remember slowing down beats and trying to do shit double time and then you start hearing where music is going, you're like... ‘that's actually what I was trying to do. Ah yeah okay, I'm not crazy, yes it could work, blah blah blah’. And in the same way, like I said, talking about poetry is coding, and then seeing the dialogue start getting into the realm of disruption and all of these things – which was the whole goal of what we were doing! For me, poetry reading, for example, was not some place where we would gather and snap your fingers and some Bohemian shit. My favourite place to recite poetry was in a place where it was totally unexpected where people wanted something different, where it was obscene and absurd to be on stage without music, and punk as fuck to just go up there and be like go, "What?!" And you love it! (both laugh) That was the whole idea, was to disrupt… it was to disrupt. And so now when we start talking about- I mean I started feeling this during in 2008 with the Obama campaign and listening to the dialogue and now as you move on to the LGBTQ language and hearing about intersexuality and all the Black Lives Matter language and all of this stuff and I'm like,’ wow!’ Actually, the effect of some of these poetry readings has actually spanned out into the globe and people are using these terms. They may not know where they're rooted from and it's not even that it's rooted there, but they certainly pass through there way before they pass through the media. And so it's just been a series of confirmations for me, for my work. So I work in all fields that I live through and I use technology on a regular basis, and so I express through technology on a regular basis. It would just make sense to me.

Sanford Biggers: Well it seems that we're at a point socially where the language is finally starting to catch up with the ideas and people are able to hear concepts about disenfranchised people in groups in a way they couldn't hear it before. I think 10, 15, 20-years-ago for sure, and beyond that, to mention anything from a marginalised community standpoint would just be met with deaf ears because sort of how there were all these feelings of incrimination and guilt that people couldn't allow themselves to hear things. I think we're now at a point where we're getting a bit more evolved and understanding that just because it's fucked up for one person doesn't mean you did it. But our history did it and we're all part of that so we all have to listen if we want to change shit.