Sanford Biggers’ first solo show at Marianne Boesky is, in a word, woke. (For those unfamiliar with contemporary slang, “woke” is derived from “awake” and refers to a state of awareness regarding current events.) In Selah, Biggers reclaims representation of the African diaspora in the context of North America by combining tribal motifs with markers of modern history, creating a collection that is at once both socio-politically aware and, perhaps unintentionally, groovy.
Through this collection, Biggers offers a complete, yet ever-evolving identity of a peoples whose lives have spanned continents and periods of time wherein they have endured continuous systemic injustice: Sanford sources quilts and textiles from a variety of sources. Some are purchased, others are found, and yet others are donated. He then alters their landscapes with bright colors and bold patterns and constructs sculptures from these old materials that conjure the cries of present-day Black Lives Matter protests.
The use of antique quilts lends legitimacy to the dialogue between the past and the present that is the cornerstone of Biggers’ collection. By using them in lieu of more traditional mediums like canvas or panel, he can pay tribute to the hands which molded the textiles’ geometric compositions, as well as remold and reshape the patterns already imprinted on their surfaces, therefore changing the projection of their histories. The colors used on the quilts – in opaque spray paints and acrylics – range from pitch black to glittering silver and to every neon color in-between, bringing a new light to old darkness. Through this process, Biggers reclaims the power that was unattainable to Black Americans just a little over a century ago.
One specific quilt-construction, notable for its more overtly 3-dimensional structure and for its position in the center of a wall in the gallery’s main room, commands attention with its size and symmetry.
Biggers’ other more structural pieces — quilt-statues, if you will — are anthropomorphizations which serve as commentary on the current state of affairs in America regarding police brutality against black Americans. There is one particular figure, Selah, that is reminiscent of African tribal forms, and whose positioning mimics the phrase that Black Lives Matter activists have used as a rallying cry in recent years: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” There is the feeling that this is a commentary on the current manifestation of subjugation of black Americans — that is on how their place in society may appear to have changed, but in actuality, they are still fighting the same battles they have been fighting for hundreds of years.
This temporal crossroads is also explored in one of the other most eye-catching pieces in the collection, Overstood, where three tribal figurines are transformed in their projected shadow to display important figures of the 1960s black-power movement.
If you are interested in vibrant colors and in riding a roller coaster of emotions rooted in historical sociology, Selah is the art show for you. It evokes a complex collection of emotions: a viewer might feel the reverence of worship, the harshness of violence, the serenity of prayer, or the anguish of grief. At the same time, the unabashed boldness of the colors and figures used to offer the viewer the feeling of momentum. Biggers nods to the struggles of black America’s past and acknowledges the trials of black America’s present but pushes the conversation forward with fearless and ceaseless determination to instead regard black America’s future.