Sanford Biggers and For Freedoms
Maria Brito and artist Sanford Biggers discuss issues related to syncretism, black history, police brutality and the influences that jazz and hip-hop have had on Sanford’s multimedia practice. Then she meets Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, co-founders of the collective For Freedoms, to discuss freedom in America, voting rights and art as a medium for participatory engagement.
Brito: So, we're gonna go and meet with Sanford Biggers
in his Harlem studio.
Sanford is an incredible man.
He can perform,
work with quilts, create sculptures.
Central to his work
is uncovering the patent layers of American history.
He is opening new ways
to talk about slavery, African diaspora, civil rights.
And those are very tough conversations to have,
but I believe that
when you start that conversation with art,
then you can really have a much more engaged audience,
and that's what he does,
and his work is crucial and important.
We can learn something through an artist like him.
You've been in Harlem for 20 years.
You were here, live here.
You were a professor at Columbia University.
How has this incredible neighborhood
informed your art practice?
Well before I moved to Harlem, I was finishing up grad school
at the school the Art Institute of Chicago,
and ever since I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles,
I always had this romanticized notion of Harlem.
And after Chicago, when I was looking for a place to move --
I had applied to the Studio Museum in Harlem
Studio Museum's Artist-in-Residency program.
I was lucky enough to get that program,
as well as the PS1 residency,
and that moved me to New York.
And I wanted to live in Harlem
so I could be closer to the studio here
but be part of the culture
that I saw starting to have another renaissance.
You do want to eradicate the collective amnesia
about American history
and stimulate thought with your work in your art practice.
How do you do that?
It's sort of a blessing and a curse.
I think I have been working with this language
of American history
and untold stories of American history
for quite some time.
And right now I'm finding that there is an interest in my work
because of that conversation
but I've been doing that conversation for so long
that I'm interested in talking about many other things
beyond that especially now
that that conversation is front and center in the U.S.
Part of what I do
to eradicate that notion of historical amnesia
is still to present some of those ideas
but creating a more nuanced way of looking at them.
There is a concept that you are a master of,
which is syncretism,
and you use black culture,
Buddhism, African spiritualism,
music, video --
everything that you can get your hands on
and turn it into your art.
How did you do that,
and why is that so central to your practice?
I get inspiration from many different sources,
whether it be literary or musical or dance or even food,
and I don't believe that there needs to be
these hard distinctions between those genres.
So within my own practice,
I seek to find ways to put those things together.
And for me, it's really about the aura
and the energy of each of those elements,
as opposed to being very restricted by notions
of what is considered painting or drawing or sculpture.
For me, I'm more interested to see an idea to its end,
and sometimes that might manifest itself
in two dimensions, three dimensions,
or even over time through music and video.
I'm very happy that I can work in all these mediums
and get these ideas out, but I think it's also important
to sort of see
how I use all these various different disciplines
because that, for me, is the thing
that I would like to inspire other artists with
is the ability to use each material as its own language,
and what kind of statements can you make.
once you've got that language?
Some of the things that I've seen of your work
that have moved me the most is the series of "BAM."
Yeah. So, the "BAM" series -- it's a very challenging work
that I embarked upon probably around five or six years ago.
I was living in Berlin at the time,
and, you know, pretty much every few days
while checking on my phone,
I'm starting to see more and more video
of black people being killed by the police.
And, you know, it's nothing new --
it's been happening for 400 years in this country.
But now we have the technology
to literally catch it on camera and distribute it.
I got frustrated.
It was a visceral reaction to start to create this work.
I thought, "Okay, the only way for me to express these ideas
is to literally take these figures
that I've been holding on and considering precious
and now put them literally under fire."
So I started to take those figures,
I dipped them in wax,
and I took them to a shooting range
and I began to sculpt them with different caliber weapons.
[ Gunshots ]
[ Gunshot echoes ]
Depending on the caliber of the weapon I was using,
it might just knock off an arm,
or it might just completely obliterate the figure.
But then I would take those remnants
and cast them in bronze.
So, in fact, there is this sort of like a transubstantiation
of taking it from one material
and then destroying it, presumably,
and then re-creating it, reincarnating it in bronze.
And I thought that this was a way
not only to sort of play around in the sculptural canon,
but, also, to memorialize the victims of these tragic events.
So each of these pieces have been named after
a different victim --
for Tamir, for Eric, for Michael, and so on.
The sad thing being I can do this series
for the rest of my life because there seems to be no end
to that kind of brutality against African-Americans.
Talk to me about "Overstood."
And so the piece you're talking about, "Overstood,"
is a black-and-silver, double-sided sequined piece,
and it's installed directly on the wall,
and it looks like a very elongated silhouette
of four figures standing.
And, particularly, these four figures
are standing at a podium and speaking to a microphone.
And then, on the ground,
are four corresponding black figurative pieces
that look like African sculptures.
It's from a photograph that was taken in 1968,
as four Black Panthers we're speaking at a protest
in Berkeley, California.
Now, the interesting thing about this is, at the opening,
as I'm driving up to the exhibition,
I get a text message from a friend who's saying,
"Did you know that you have my father on the wall
in this exhibition?"
I was like, "What do you mean?"
It's like, "The tall guy in your 'Overstood' piece
is my dad."
So she connected me by text to her father,
who was one of the Black Panthers
in this -- in this image.
So I got an insight of this history,
but, also, as I --
you know just like I'm telling the story now,
people have started to learn more about those Panthers
that are in that picture,
several of which were still alive.
And this is actually indicative of a lot of my work,
that there's these multiple layers
of aesthetics, art history, and then social history,
and so on.
So I think it's, you know,
one of my favorite pieces, actually.
And the name "Overstood" comes from sort of
like a Jamaican patois slang --
"Overstood" is a way of saying
that you supremely understand something,
so if you understand, you overstand something. Oh.
And in this case, these guys
overstood the political situation in the U.S.,
and they were delivering that.
So that's why these tall elders are looking down
as we look up at them.
Tell me about "Cheshire." I love this work.
I've seen it -- you've added it to so much... Yeah.
...and so many of your installations.
Yeah. So, "Cheshire" -- it's sort of an ongoing character.
The first one was a light-box sculpture
that was hanging from a tree
in the Black Forest in Southern Germany.
And it's on a timer, so, you know, it blinks and flashes
and then it shuts down for a while,
and then it reappears,
just like the Cheshire Cat disappearing and reappearing.
And when I showed it there,
everybody got the "Alice in Wonderland" reference,
but when I took the same piece
and I showed it in Richmond, Virginia,
everyone saw blackface minstrelsy.
So it went to a completely different read.
And I was very interested in how the context around the piece
changed the meaning of the piece,
the experience of the viewers
changed the meaning of the piece.
So I think that was one of the early explorations
and defining work
that could be read multiple ways intentionally
and the ideas that the audience can speak together
and figure out what they're getting from it individually.
Brito: This is one of your famous quilts.
Biggers: This was one of the earliest quilts.
And this specific one was in the Red Rooster for many years.
When the Red Rooster was about to open,
Marcus and I were hanging out a lot,
and we were just talking to each other
about design concepts and artwork and so on,
and I made this piece,
and we hung it in the dining room.
So it was there for many years,
and it just got back to the studio recently.
You have a very spectacular art collection here.
Sanford's work is dominant where it is --
it's a very beautiful quilt.
What is it about his work that moves you?
With Sanford, for me, it's really personal.
We came up in New York at the same time,
in the mid- to late 90s,
and here was this young, incredible, creative guy
that I admired,
and I was a young chef coming up in New York.
So a lot of the work that I have from Sanford,
both at home and here at the restaurant,
makes me think about the creative journey,
where two people from the African diaspora
wanted to tell our narratives
in a detailed, complex, non-monolithic way.
And I enjoyed all the different things
that we have shared over that -- over 20 years.
Like, I studied in Japan -- Sanford studied in Japan.
He worked all over Europe -- I worked all over Europe.
So we shared these different notes,
and he's very much on a journey,
on the search, and how to evolve.
Have you collaborated with Sanford on projects?
Sanford and I started talking some years ago
because I was really curious about how he was working
within many different disciplines.
So he'd be making videos,
then he'd be making a dance floor,
then he'd be making, you know, music.
And he seemed to be the kind of artist
that, you know, as a musician, was intriguing
because he knew all of this stuff, you know?
And we've never "officially" collaborated,
but we're always in each other's ears
about what's happening.
Part of being an artist of any discipline
is that curiosity about the other forms
and how the process works.
And I know, when I met Sanford,
I was really curious about other artists' process.
In jazz, much of the process
is revealed in the improvisation.
So it's not mapped out necessarily.
And for an artist, when you go see their work
in a gallery or an exhibition,
you're really seeing, many times,
the work in its complete state.
And Sanford was pulling
at some of these "complete states," you know?
So you think that, in a way, he has influenced or inspired
some of the work you do?
Because you look at what he does,
and that gives you fuel totally differently.
Tell me about your band, Moon Medicin.
Moon Medicin is a band that I started
around a decade ago.
And it consists of five other members --
myself playing keyboard,
who's a fantastic lead vocalist and guitarist,
my DJ is Jahi Sundance,
who's also been on tour
with Meshell Ndegeocello and Robert Glasper.
My main bassist is André Cymone --
literally, Prince's original bass player.
Our drum position rotates out --
sometimes it's Swiss Chris.
Sometime, we actually play live computer drums.
We wear full costumes, full masks,
and I would describe the music as maybe a mix
of Radiohead and Prince and Public Enemy.
[ Echoing ] Ladies and gentlemen...
We are the Moon Medicin men,
and we come all the way from outer space.
How does it feel to have been able to perform at the Apollo?
As a musician, it's a huge honor to perform here.
And as an artist. It's been a huge honor
to exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem,
which is one block away.
And even my studio is in the National Black Theatre,
which was the original location
of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
So, for me,
I'm living in a long trajectory
of creative history right here that's local to Harlem.
And that's the interesting thing about Moon Medicin, as well,
is that, as a band, I could do all of that mixing.
live time, real time,
with musicians, In the format of a performance.
Goes back to that idea of syncretism. Yeah?
So there's even the aesthetic syncretism of that.
I think music does it very well.
You can mix so many different styles and genres
with the music.
I think visual art can do the same.
Thank you for walking all the way in the heat with me.
Yeah, my pleasure.
I love walking through Harlem,
and I was glad to take you on this voyage with me.
Thank you, Sanford. Alright.
The genius thing about For Freedoms is that,
Hank and Eric came with this amazing idea
to create ways of showing art by recruiting other artists.
They have worked with 150 artists
or more in the United States
to highlight that people have a lot of power with the vote.
So what For Freedom has done is an incredible use of billboards,
bus stops, town halls
lead by artists, exhibitions, installations.
When you combine art and the message,
it really becomes bigger than each of the parts.
How you two came up with the idea of For Freedoms?
Well, we've been friends for a long time,
and both, as artists, in our art practices,
we were sort of addressing this intersection of art and politics
from different approaches, different perspectives,
and we think that art is always politics,
and all art is political,
and politics, actually, public policy
is a reflection of our culture, which art creates.
That, and the idea that we wanted to expand
what it meant for people to be actually
politically engaged and civically engaged.
And we were really initially inspired
by FDR's Four Freedoms.
Where he said, in his 1941 State of the Union Address
that everyone was entitled to four basic freedoms --
freedom of speech, freedom of worship,
freedom from fear, and freedom from want.
We were looking at those freedoms
and how they were represented,
especially, you know, initially through
Norman Rockwell's paintings of those four freedoms,
and not only were the freedoms limited to four,
but the definition of who was entitled to those freedoms
as Americans was pretty limited.
When we started looking at those pictures,
we recognized that the people in them represented
a certain slice of America, mainly a very white slice.
-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. -Yeah. Even in the --
This is the 1940s, right?
This is 1943.
So we were interested in blowing out that idea of who is included
and who is considered to be leading our society.
We wound up doing 82 different versions
of Rockwell's Four Freedoms images,
and I think you'd be hard-pressed
to not find representatives of people
who you consider part of your community,
and that was really kind of exciting,
that we didn't have to, like, you know, check box,
check box, check box.
Why did you choose billboards as medium?
Well, we are in an age where, basically,
branding trumps everything,
and what's really interesting about art
is that it asks questions that are often unsettling,
and that, what would it mean to start
to put billboards across the country
that didn't necessarily say a very concise thing.
It didn't necessarily sell anything
other than the idea was something
that we really wanted to put out into the world,
like, thinking about how we can rethink of how public space
is used for challenging the status quo.
I think it's important to recognize
that this mechanism of advertising
was something that we wanted to be critical of while
also participating in.
Similarly, I think, that's where artists
are situated within democracy.
We want to open space for artists to be both participating
and criticizing at the same time.
Who made this?
So, yeah, this one says "LoveOverRules,"
and it begs the question, do we put the rules
and the laws over, you know, love for mankind,
or should, you know, love of humanity
actually always overrule the kind of laws
that are often designed to keep us separated?
"Where do we go from here?"
Yeah, so this is an image that I made in Jordan,
and there's this fence that's kind of breaking down.
I've been photographing what I think of
as the trappings of nationalism in the Middle East
which, you know, as you know, is a colonial project,
and when we were thinking about doing billboards
for the project, I came back to this image
as something that now has a relevance
in a very different kind of context here
in the United States.
It looks like the US-Mexico border.
And the "we" here is the interesting part
for me about the question,
which came up as part of the project --
who gets to be on one side or the other,
and who gets to be defined as the "we"?
And it begs the question, where do we go from here?
Because once we have these lines,
how do we continue to relate to one another
and grow as a human species?
A lot of the work that we are often doing
is really more about questions, you know,
and how do we kind of address
really complicated, entrenched problems,
and then, what new problems come up every time
we try to solve one?
This is work by Cinthya Santos-Briones.
There are immigration detention centers
in all 50 states across the country,
but we often think about this question of immigration
as something that happens just in the border,
in a specific area,
but in fact, this is happening much closer to you,
to any of us, than where you think it is.
There have been these spaces of worship
where families are taking refuge
so that they're not being placed in detention.
And then these kids are playing in the sanctuary,
but also in a pretty precarious way.
...they both are on the edge of joy,
but also basically kind of like walking a tightrope.
Yeah, a tightrope, and the little one is almost,
like, left at his own devices. -And then the Virgin Mary...
-But all on the -- Yeah. -She's watching.
All on the same plane as the Virgin Mary.
You engaged so many people,
and so many eyes have the opportunity to see the message.
How you guys came up with that genius project?
Yeah, we started pretty simply.
We were like -- We asked our friends,
"Would you guys like to do a billboard?"
And, frankly, in the asking of people,
that made the project real, because once we said we were
going to do it, we were like, "I guess..."
-"We have to do it." -"...we have to do it."
And also, we were excited by the notion
that nothing like this had ever been done before.
We wanted to do exhibitions, town halls, and billboards
in all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico,
and were able to do over 100 exhibitions,
120 town halls,
and almost 200 billboards with over 100 artists,
and we worked throughout that period
with over 250 institutions and 800 artists.
Jack Shainman, my gallerist,
was the first person to really see the value of this project,
and then he wound up allowing us to use the gallery
as the headquarters for two months to curate an exhibition,
and that's a really strange thing
for a commercial gallery to do.
I wanted to talk to you about your perspective
as a founding member of For Freedoms
about the vision and the purpose of that collaborative platform
and what it meant to you at the time.
I mean, I think that, when For Freedoms was starting,
it just felt like, do as much as we can possibly do
at a time when thinking about the political system,
ways of working with and also around and challenging
the kind of political system, was really, really important.
It was really interesting for me
to try to figure out what kind of role the gallery can have,
you know, as a commercial gallery,
but also as a home for our artists
where they can kind of execute their wildest dreams,
and how we can really be a part of that,
and how a gallery can be more than just somewhere,
you know, that puts on shows and sells work,
but how it can really be invested in the artists
in really literal ways,
and how it can join the conversation
as an entity itself.
And have you had a particular anecdote
or a moment where you have seen communities
engaging with the work of For Freedoms where you said,
"Wow, this is meaningful."
Or something that has moved you, or impacted you?
I mean, one particular artwork
that we had was the Dread Scott flag
that we hung outside of the gallery.
And, I mean, as an example of something that was really,
really concrete, we were threatened by our landlord.
I, you know,
had to have a conversation at the local police precinct,
and, you know, I ended up going and talking to Community Affairs
for hours about issues around police brutality,
and, I mean, as something that's, like, really concrete,
it was really an amazing moment.
It was a really amazing conversation.
I learned a lot. I think they learned a lot.
That was one work and one conversation,
and that forced participation.
I would like to know what happens
when people go to the town halls.
What is For Freedoms giving them to engage them?
Well, each one of the town halls
is based on one of the four freedoms.
The one that we...
we did one on freedom of worship, and that was...
We centered that on the idea of faith,
art, and mass incarceration,
but the conversation that resulted
from having these different people in the room,
it really culminated in one of the women
from the Lutheran group
talking very personally about her experiences,
and she said, you know,
"I was arrested when my daughter was 9 months old for having..."
an ounce of marijuana?
I can't remember how much.
She had a very small amount of marijuana, and she said...
And somebody yelled out, "That's unjust!"
And she said, "Yes, that is unjust,
and I'm doing my time, I'm paying my responsibility,
and I'm going to come out of this and do amazing things."
And she was 7 years into a 10-year --
Oh, she was in a sentence for 10 years for one ounce...
For her first-time drug offense.
And with a 9-month-old child, and so that was...
And it does sound unjust that someone
who is a mother of a new child,
who had never gotten in trouble before,
would be kind of separated from her child,
but she was making the most out of it, essentially,
and that, like, our pity doesn't do any good,
but our support and encouragement might help.
And that's the space where it's --
you know, that's the space that art
can really play an interesting role,
because it's like, how do you make sense
of these seemingly conflicting and complicated ideas
that don't boil down to just, like, "Oh, that's unjust,"
or "Yes, it's unjust, but it's also something else"?
So it's -- it...
Seeing these different kind of aspects of where faith,
mass incarceration really do intersect often,
you know, was something that I --
That's the art, you know, where we have this museum space
which people often go to just to be amused,
and now there are, like, 250 people in a room
with a sheriff's deputy with...
-Right. -...a gun,
you know, with six women who were imprisoned at that point,
in discussion with multiple other people
around these issues.
-That's incredible. -And so we learned,
really, through the courage of the institutions
that collaborated with us.
We, Eric and Hank haven't been to,
I'd say, 90% of the programs that have been
For Freedoms-related because they're so big,
and we really want to make the point that
For Freedoms isn't us, you know.
It really is this network.
We try our best and have done okay
so far being kind of cheerleaders for the network,
but, you know,
I'm always astounded by the things that people do
without anything that's involved with us,
and the project can grow from that.
So we really think that,
for For Freedoms to really live out its mission,
it has to always be seen as a collaboration
that is dislocated and evolving and actually organic.