Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch
California African American Museum, Los Angeles
Through January 23, 2022
Code –switching: The process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another depending on the social context or conversational setting.
We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand.Anne Lamott
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch, at California African American Museum (CAAM) is a survey of twenty years of work, encompassing more than fifty pieces, all on the artist’s own collection of pre-nineteen hundred antique quilts. This coherent and conceptual body of paintings and sculpture examines the embedded narratives in quilts, while adding layers of meaning to them with references to contemporary art history, including graffiti. Biggers’ fearless and expert mingling of both high and low art is akin to code mixing – where phrases of one language are dropped into another.
It’s instructive to consider the history of quilts. The earliest mention of quilts is from 13th century England with the Latin word “culcita”, meaning bolster or cushion. Then as now, quilts were used as bedcovers and as family heirlooms. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln passed the Homestead Act that resulted in a wave of westward expansion. Quilts were ubiquitous among the travelers, as they were encouraged to take 2-3 quilts per man, woman and child in their party. Sadly, these quilts were often used as shrouds for the deceased, as wood for coffins was scarce and expensive.
Quilts tell many stories and, in 1998, authors Tobin and Dobard published a book called “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and The Underground Railroad,” which suggested that African- Americans used the quilts as signposts. The writers based their research on the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel, a descendant of enslaved people. The secret code McDaniel revealed had been passed down to her from her ancestors and was quite complex; for example, a quilt with a Bear’s Paw design meant follow the tracks of a bear which will lead you to water and berries, while a quilt with a Wrenches design meant gather your tools. Although this intriguing premise is still unproven (there is no mention of it in slave narratives) it clearly influences Biggers’ work, though he refers to it as a “rumor.”
Quilts were women’s work and young girls learned to quilt before they learned to read. Nineteenth-century quilts used as privacy curtains, bed covers, and often became historical documents as family histories were sewn into them. Each scrap reflected the wearer or a family event or memory. Biggers in an interview described his body of work said “They’re portals, in a sense…I consider them between painting, drawing and sculpture, and a repository of memories – the memories of the body…” He added that the “…work is improvisational, meditative and private.”
In the striking “Harlem Blue,” 89 x 97 inches, Biggers paints over a quilt with the popular pattern called Nine Patch, supposedly one of the easiest quilts to make. Biggers drips paint over the quilt reaffirming the flatness of the “picture plane” as did ABEX painters. The geometry of the gridded pattern merges near the bottom with a roiling sea of cobalt blue, inscribed with elegant curlicue white lines, which mimic the style of nineteenth century Japanese Ukiyo prints. The term “Ukiyo “ refers to a “floating, fleeting, transient world,” quite appropriate to the imagery now hidden underneath the dense opaque paint. The title is a play on words, as “Blue” Is a both a color descriptor and a melancholy mood. The Blues, of course, is the soul wrenching music of Black Americans, which has influenced white rock n roll musicians. Just as Biggers covers over fabric with paint, so too do artists “cover” one another’s music. The title reminds us of the vibrant Harlem of the 1930’s, a hotbed of Black American cultural production and innovation which fell into disrepair after segregation.
Each piece in this complex exhibition contains a myriad of references and stories that collapse time, bringing the past (which lingers just underneath the surface) into our present. Biggers’ intentional use of specific materials for their historical meaning is both subtle and piercing. “Pas de Deux,” 2016, Antique quilt, assorted textiles, burnt cork, charcoal, 83 x 75 inches, has a checkerboard quilt, navy blue polka dots and white, onto which is affixed a small draped piece of black and white striped fabric. The bottom of the quilt is draped upwards as if the dancer of the pas de deux was about to twirl. Two abstracted “figures,” bend as if bowing (possibly subservient) and are drawn with burnt cork and charcoal onto the gridded polka dotted substrate. Only after a minute does one comprehend that burnt cork was used by white performers to darken their faces in minstrel shows: and that chain gangs prisoners were clothed in black and white striped uniforms. Quietly, without being bombastic or didactic, Biggers delivers a powerful metaphoric reminder of the wreckage caused by systemic racism.
Interspersed among the wall pieces are engaging low relief wall sculptures that reminded me at first of the children’s game of Fortune Teller (also called Snapdragon, Whirlybird, Chatterbox) that begins with a square of paper folded into compartments. Although the structure of the sculpture evokes this childhood game, the title makes clear that there is a more serious purpose here. “Reconstruction” Antique quilt, birch plywood, gold leaf, 38 x 72 x 19 inches is composed of triangular sections of an Old Glory pieced quilt that speaks to the failure of reconstruction to address the social, economic and political legacy of slavery that exists even now.
Several of my personal favorites feature architectural elements like cut out arched windows or portals and suggest houses of worship such as mosques or churches. “Ecclesiastes I (KJV)” 2020, Antique quilt, assorted textiles, wood, 77.50 x 70.50 inches, is on an intact elegant quilt with an eight pointed star filling each square. The limited palette of pale green, and reddish-orange against a white field is dramatic. That the original quilt is in such a pristine condition clearly speaks to its carefully preserved heirloom status. The cut out arched windows are a surprise and there are both painted and actual shadows enhancing the sense of an actual three-dimensional space one could enter. “Whence, wince,” 2020, Antique quilt, charcoal at 151 x 89 x 85 inches is one of the largest and most dramatic work, and is quite different than most of the other works as there are four cut out portals folded and peeled back like a band aid laying onto the floor. This exposes both the gallery white wall and the inside usually unseen interior onto which Biggers draws charcoal parallel lines. Laid on the floor these runners become like prayer rugs inviting the viewer to enter into this magical space or a way into an underground railroad. The wall becomes a player here as shadows wash over the void reminding us that the wall is an impenetrable barrier.
This show demands total concentration from the viewer as each dense piece has much information sewn into it or painted on top of it, or cut out of it and reassembled. While some works are kept simpler others are like a mélange of multivalent references and languages that challenge the viewer to decode and digest. These cerebral wall paintings and sculptures are poetic re-enactments of histories, memories or stories that have been erased, hidden, whitewashed or ignored. When Biggers interrupts, juxtaposes and paints over these priceless artifacts, he is engaging in a form of provocative destruction as well as paradoxically paying homage, leaving the viewer to sort out this complicated message of transformation and reincarnation.