Don’t be alarmed by the sound of gunshots when you enter the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Manhattan to see the Sanford Biggers exhibition Selah. The loud bangs don’t emanate from a shoot-out in progress, but from a video of wooden figures being “ballistically sculpted” at a firing range. It’s all part of Biggers’ response to the Black Lives Matter movement, an attempt to overcome historical amnesia.
It’s violent and challenging, like the world is.
The title “Selah” derives from a word used seventy-four times in the Hebrew Bible. It has no precise definition but is used like “Amen” to signal a time for contemplation and reflection upon a message just delivered. There is plenty to reflect upon in this show by the 47-year-old Biggers, an associate professor and director of sculpture at Columbia University. All the works (on view through Oct. 21) were made in 2017. They display influences and inspirations shaping the work of this mid-career artist: Buddhism, mandalas, antique quilts, sacred geometry, patterns, music and politics.
In a recent walk-through for press at the gallery, Biggers explained that the 10-foot-tall sculpture Selah — its hollowed-out form partially shattered by bullets — also figures in his multi-screen video installation Infinite Tabernacle, in which sculptures resembling traditional African figures are blasted by bullets. Biggers transformed the fragments into a steel-and-fiberglass figure adorned with patchwork-quilt pieces and sequins. The figure’s raised arms resemble the hands-up posture assumed by Black civilians in fatal encounters with police, as well as the “hands-up, don’t shoot” gesture made by protesters. Yet in this case, the ancestral African sculpture raises its arms before bowing down in prayer.
Selah is part of a series Biggers calls “BAM.” To him, the damaged sculptures are “power objects” like African Nkisi — wooden figures embedded with shards of glass, mirrors or nails, totems with spiritual energy. Although sharp objects penetrate the bodies violently, traditional artisans believed, Biggers said, “They create power in these sculptures and give that object strength, to help ward off evil and promise good luck and prosperity for the people.”
Taking wooden sculptures to a shooting range and penetrating them with bullets from a 22-caliber gun or 12-gauge shotgun was the artist’s way of borrowing conceptually from African tradition while at the same time referencing a dark time in contemporary reality. Biggers called the sculptures he makes — often by casting the splintered fragments in bronze to reconstitute the figure as a memorial — “regenerative,” adding, “I don’t look at them as [symbolizing] death. I see it as the beginning of a different life, maybe immortality, and the chance from that action to create change and some knowledge and understanding in the future.”
Speaking in a phone interview from Rome (where he is recipient of the 2017 Rome Prize in Visual Arts from the American Academy), Biggers explained the origin of his shooting-range project. It began in 2014 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO. “This was one of those moments when I saw a complete, essential narrative come into formation,” he explained. “I woke up reading the news and seeing yet another killing of a Black citizen by the police. Of course, I grew up knowing that was an everyday reality, but now we had the visuals and sound [from smart-phone and body-cam videos] to prove it. I’ve heard about it, knew about it, even experienced it myself, but to see the constant visuals gave me purpose.”
If you give up hope, you’ve given up totally.
He’d been collecting African wooden sculptures for years from thrift shops and souvenir stands, anticipating a project with them. “I decided this needs to happen right now,” Biggers said. “It’s violent and challenging, but it matches the tone of what’s happening out there. It was an expression I had to get out.”
Biggers’ own experience with violence and racial profiling by law enforcement officers in LA and Chicago informs his outlook. “I have had police put guns to my head more than once in my life,” he said, “and I’m an Ivy League professor.” Although for years Black Americans have protested such treatment, society as a whole seemed in denial about claims of racial bias. Biggers hopes his work will illuminate the reality that “regardless of where you come from and what you’ve achieved, if you’re Black in America, you’re still vulnerable at any moment to being put down on the pavement and having a gun pushed in your face or being killed. It’s just a fact.”
Statistics verify this fact. According to the Washington Post, unarmed Black Americans are five times as likely as unarmed whites to be shot and killed by police. A study by the Guardian found that Black males aged 15 to 34 are nine times more likely to be killed than any other demographic.
Lest we think this epidemic has no cure, Biggers’ Infinite Tabernacle installation of five vertical video screens (like hand-held smart-phone footage) documents the pow-pow of gunshots tearing apart his wooden sculptures but then reverses to show them being made whole. “I realized this wasn’t about the destruction of the figures,” he explained. “This was more about the resolution and reconstitution of the figures. They are battered and bruised, but they are still in the fight — still soldiers, still warriors.”
The looped video shows both subtractive and additive processes of destruction and creation, teetering between disintegration and resurrection in a continuum of life and death. Biggers denies that this idea of rebirth signals facile optimism, equating it with a determination to persevere. His conviction recalls William Faulkner’s words in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
“It’s very easy for us to throw in the towel, given the forces of evil and the degradation of people that’s been so comprehensive for so long,” Biggers said. “But if you give up hope and that fight, then you’ve given up totally. We’re all going through trauma right now, socially and culturally, but you can’t give in. You’ve got to keep pushing through.”
Other works also give material form to a need for solidarity with positive elements of the past and the necessity of acknowledging negative forces. Overstood takes its title from Jamaican patois, in which “overstood” (meaning to understand something completely and supremely) is like “understood” on steroids. The multimedia work is composed of a 12-foot-tall black-sequin silhouette on a wall and a group of simulated African statues carved by the artist that appear to cast a raking shadow. The portraits in the silhouette are of Black Panthers like Bobby Seale at an Oakland news conference in 1968. They were protesting racial bias at San Francisco State University, which had resulted in the firing of a teacher who’d joined the Black Panthers. The campus tumult led to a five-month-long student strike, ending with establishing the College of Ethnic Studies. Now fifty years later, Ethnic Studies seems no longer a priority and suffers from a chronic lack of funds. “For what reason?” Biggers asked. “Historical amnesia again.”
Biggers sees himself as a collaborator with the past, especially in his use of vintage quilts, antique kimonos and futon covers, which he manipulates into three-dimensional, origami-like objects altered with spray paint, tar, charcoal and sequins. Biggers, a musician who performs with his band Moon Medicin, compares the practice to hip-hop sampling and mixing to recover the forgotten past. Quilts, made by anonymous hands before 1900, are also coded objects, hung in yards as signals to escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Nyabinghi is a five-part assemblage of various quilts and kimono pieces on which spectral figures of African women are appliquéd. The name refers to an African warrior queen, revered by Rastafarians, who inspired rebellion against colonial oppressors. Biggers said he finds strength and subtle messages in the old quilts, adding his own voice to those who made them. “It boils down to the word ‘patchwork’,” he said, signifying fusion of many sources and the labor of many hands.
Examining the past, transforming it, looking at it from different perspectives and then finding visual forms to catalyze understanding have been crucial to Biggers’ practice for years. Blossom, 2007, is an ambitious sculpture consisting of a grand piano slammed against a 15-foot tall tree. Hauntingly, the player piano performs a loop of the unforgettable Billie Holiday song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.”
It’s like James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”