Along with Kalimba II, Bittersweet the Fruit is an early work in which the piano plays a prominent role. The video opens with an image of an upright piano, seen from behind, standing outdoors in a wooded area. The camera approaches and slowly circles around to reveal a black male pianist, nude, seated at the keyboard. Shot by the artist in the summer of 1998, its creation coincided with the brutal murder, by dragging, of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas. Grieved by the event, which shocked the nation, Biggers regarded the video as a kind of memorial to Byrd: “Actually my hope was to reclaim nature and the African American male’s entitlement to be in nature without the fear of torture or death.”
As with the celestial references in Calenda (Big Ass Bang!), here Biggers again relates cosmology to the African American experience. UGRR:US2.2 is made from old quilts; Biggers was attracted to the ready-made patterns and colors of the textiles and thought they could serve as evocative backgrounds for his line drawings. Quilts also have cultural significance in African American history: during the era of the Underground Railroad, it is believed that displayed quilts were sometimes used to signal safe routes to escaping slaves headed north. Biggers’ drawing and appliqué dots on the quilts also echo elements of a previous art project in which he created a celestial map of stops on the Underground Railroad within Philadelphia.
Like the video of the same title, this sculpture refers to the Cheshire Cat, the feline character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland known for its ear-to-ear grin and its ability to disappear gradually, its famous smile remaining the last thing visible. With its broad grin, thick red lips, and flashing white teeth, Cheshire resembles a billboard or a shaped sign, and it has been shown dangling from a tree branch. The sculpture makes knowing reference to stereotypes of the appearance and behavior of African Americans, as portrayed, for example, in minstrel shows popular in the nineteenth century that featured white performers made up in blackface. As such, Cheshire functions as a kind of logo for taunting a racist stereotype, as well as an emblem of the process of reclaiming and transforming one’s identity.
The title of this piece humorously plays on the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Footprints outlined on the floor and walls of a corner in the gallery suggest exuberant dance steps that would animate the space. A spinning disco ball placed near the floor heightens the sense of dynamic movement as well as suggesting a celestial explosion. Calenda, a form of martial arts practiced in the Caribbean, had its origins in Africa. It is believed by some to have evolved into a dance performed by enslaved Africans in the antebellum South; the various movements might have been used to send coded messages between dancers without their owners’ knowledge.
Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk—An Introspective
September 23, 2011–January 8, 2012
In this focused selection of thirteen pieces, New York–based artist Sanford Biggers challenges and reinterprets symbols and legacies that inform contemporary America. The exhibition is Biggers’ first museum presentation in New York, and it will also mark the Brooklyn debut of Blossom (2007), a large-scale multimedia installation that incorporates references ranging from lynchings to Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Recently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, Blossom also alludes to the ideologically tinged landscapes of artists such as Alfred Bierstadt and Frederic Church.
Among the other, thematically related pieces is Cheshire (2008), a sculpture that references both the disembodied smile of the eponymous cat and the caricatured grin associated with blackface minstrelsy. Kalimba II (2002), named after an African percussion instrument, incorporates a piano bisected by a wall; a bench invites visitors to sit down and play half of the keyboard, initiating a dialogue/duet with an unseen visitor on the other side of the wall. As with Blossom, Lotus (2007) combines references to Buddhism and to slavery: a lotus etched in glass contains in each petal diagrams of human bodies placed in the cargo hold of an eighteenth-century slave ship. Biggers has been creating installations and performances for more than a decade.
Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk–An Introspective is organized by Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Exhibition Fund, Toby Devan Lewis, the FUNd, the Stephanie and Tim Ingrassia Contemporary Art Exhibition Fund, and other donors.
The accompanying catalogue is supported by the Lambent Foundation and by a Brooklyn Museum publications endowment established by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.