The “C” Files with Maria Brito


Sanford Biggers

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.

AIRED: October 23, 2019 | 0:13:28



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,

Martin Luther,

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.






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