It’s always exciting to see new art moving into the galleries here at MASS MoCA. The latest comes from Sanford Biggers, a New York-based artist whose exhibition “The Cartographer’s Conundrum”Â opened Saturday, February 4th in our football field-sized Building 5 gallery. This multidisciplinary new show takes inspiration from Sanford’s late cousin John Biggers, a Houston, TX based painter and muralist, as well as themes of Afrofuturism, which re-imagines the African diaspora through the lens of cosmology and technology.Â We had a chance to sit down and chat with Sanford about the new exhibit and his work in general.
Sanford Biggers, center, with Curator Denise Markonish and Director Joe Thompson at the opening on Saturday.
How would you define Afrofuturism for people who arenât familiar with the concept?
Iâm still trying to figure out the concept myself (laughs), but itâs been this ongoing dialogue for, Iâd probably say the last 15 years, at least on a scholarly level. As an aesthetic dialogue Iâd say itâs been going on 40 or 50 years. But one aspect of it is the notion of looking at the very complicated past of people in the African diaspora and understanding that in relation to where we are todayâtechnologically, socially, culturally, economically, so on and so forth. When I say âweâ I mean the world. Everyone. And looking forward as well, sort of trying to figure out a way to re-investigate and re-claim the past through the use of science fiction. You know, if you think about Sun-Ra or Earth Wind and Fire or John Coltraneâa lot of their work was really dealing with very spritual and transcendent themes borrowed from science fiction and Eastern religions and African religions. And as they did that they sort of went through Western structures and a myriad of historical references to the U.S. to get to that place where weâre sort of looking past and looking beyond it. But alsoâthis is a new thing Iâm thinkingâat least the way Iâm using it, thereâs almost a reference to comic books and comic book sci-fi, and the old album covers from P. Funk or Santana, and the kind of vision that was expressed in those album coversâHigh graphic, high illustration elements.
Whatâs it been like working at MASS MoCA? Has the size of the space influenced or changed your preconceived ideas for the exhibit?
Yeah, to answer the second question first, definitely. Coming here on a daily basis and having to deal with different issues of space or light or volume or presenceâbut I knew it was going to be a challenge like that. I mean, itâs not the kind of place where you can just bring something already made and plop in the middle and leave. Youâve got to work with the space and see what kinds of challenges arise.
Are you happy with how itâs turned out?
I am. The thing about it is, the way this is set up, different things happen during different weather conditions, so youâll never see the same show twice. You know, the reflections, the shadows, the light, the pacing of all of that changes daily.
You said in an interview with Harvard that some of your ideas for your piece “Constellation (Stranger Fruit)” appeared to you in a dream. How much a part, if any, does your subconscious mind play in your work?
I donât know, I think doing art is like its own form of therapy, so everybodyâs got a little bit of their own personal stuff inside the work, even if itâs the most stark, minimal, conceptual work possible. Even that, somehow I think, has a unique relationship to that person. So I mean, the subconscious definitely steps into the work, but more so as visual cues. You know how you might have a song that you wake up with in the morning and itâs stuck in your head for a day or so? Itâs a lot like that. Iâll have a dream thatâs not really related to art at all, and I might turn a corner and see something, and thatâs the one thing I remember when I wake up, or some version of it. But the more you think about it, the more it changes and morphs, but at least itâs a starting point.
Did any parts of this show come to you spontaneously?
The Plexiglas definitely, and I think the stage lights sort of happened because of doing performances, doing lectures, and having those lights looking back at you half the time.
Can you talk about your interest in sacred geometry and how that ties into what you do?
Yeah, I think I probably was first exposed to that subconsciously from the work of John Biggers, but more consciously when I went to college and we started to look at a lot of ideas that came from North African and Egyptian societies. And the notion of sacred geometry was really interesting to meâI remember hearing about how in certain cultures, itâs actually looked down upon to look at an image, a photographic image, or to try to depict a deity or god, or Allah. And the way you can actually sort of acknowledge that presence is through geometry and perfection of line and numbers. And the idea of the “Vitruvian Man”âof course that goes into Europe and is translated into all these different meanings over generations. So, thatâs interesting to me, and also its implications in terms of the societies that upheld thoseÂ sacred geometries. This was something that [John] Biggers wasÂ interested in, and he worked with a mathematician where he was teaching at Texas Southern University, and they both would just sit and have these long sessions about different things theyâd learned about sacred geometry and how to apply that to his visual strategies.
Speaking of Leonardoâs “Vitruvian Man,” I read that you spent some time living in Florence, Italy. How long were you there and did that affect your aesthetic at all?
I was there for a year, studying. I lived there before I moved to Japan for three years. So, that was my first time living abroad and I studied Italian, photography, sculpture and painting while I was there.
Can you talk about your time in Japan a little bit?
Yeah, when I was living in Japan I became really interested in Buddhism. There was a temple a few blocks away from where I was living, and I would walk by it and then I gradually started to walk through it. First I was just intrigued by the sculptures and the statues, and then I got a little bit more into the ritual and learning more about where it came from, and then I started to go through different readings about Buddhism and so on. And seeing it in a living culture was also very influential. So some of the ideas definitely come into my workâthatâs where the initial dance floor started from, because they were fashioned after mandalas. And I still apply a lot of those ideas: Wabi-sabi and the perfection of the imperfect, and using found objects because they have their inherent history, and their beauty is in their rusticity and used patina. So I mean in this installation, you can definitely see that with the pipe organs and different instruments.
How do you hope people will feel when they walk through this space?
I just hope they can take the time and see many different things unfold. Thereâs not one thing I want people to get from it. I actually would like them to have multiple discoveries.
By Cora Sugarman