Sanford Biggers returns to Atlanta this week

Biggers returns to Atlanta to present some of his interdisciplinary, boundary-breaking work on March 27 and 28

The Triptych: Sanford Biggers from AFROPUNK on Vimeo.

When Sanford Biggers was attending Morehouse in the late ’80s, there was no studio art program so he had to go next door to Spelman to take classes. It turned out to be a fortuitous thing: One of his mentors there, the late sculptor Toby Martin, encouraged Biggers to expand beyond painting and begin making sculpture. “He saw my interest in art,” he says. “He is the one who really swayed me into working in three dimenstions.”

It could be said now that Biggers is an artist who works in every dimension. Currently among the most acclaimed contemporary American artists, Biggers creates in the realms of sculpture, painting, music, installation, video and performance - and often intriguing and inventive combinations of all of them. “There’s no method to it,” he says of his unusual form of working. “Certain ideas come to me in musical form, sometimes in moving image form, sometimes in object form. There’s no real rhyme or reason to them.”

Biggers, who grew up in LA and is currently based in New York, returns to Atlanta to present some of his interdisciplinary, boundary-breaking work over two evenings, March 27-28. The Auburn Avenue Research Library will screen the Afropunk documentary The Triptych, which examines the practice of three contemporary African-American artists including Biggers, on March 27 at 7 pm, and Biggers will also perform with his band Moon Medicine after a screening of his trio of short films Shuffle, Shake and Shatter at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center on March 28 beginning at 8 pm.

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Given the fact that Biggers works in so many different media, often simultaneously and in unusual combinations, it’s not surprising that much of his practice is influenced by his dual interests in improvisation and meditation. After graduating from Morehouse, Biggers lived in Japan for three years where he studied Zen Buddhism. He says that the pacing and visual strategies in his films are often closer to meditation than linear narrative or typical cinematic catharsis. The trilogy of short videos he’ll present at the Ferst Center Shuffle, Shake and Shatter take as their subject a Brazlian ex-pat whom Biggers met during a residency in Stuttgart, Germany.

“He definitely stands out,” says Biggers of the first film Shuffle, which follows Ricardo, who is of African descent, during his daily activities in Stuttgart, all while he’s putting on or taking off clown-make-up. “It really becomes about wearing a mask as a defense mechanism, but it’s also so he can alter his perceptions and the way people perceive him. The mask is also a mirror.” The second film Shake takes place in Salvador Do Bahia, Brazil, where Ricardo roams the streets, confronting death in a coffin shop and encountering two different oracles. The last, Shatter, which is still in process, takes place between Senegal and Ethiopia as Ricardo transcends his body altogether to become an entity or aura.

The screening will be followed by a performance by the band Moon Medicine in which Biggers plays keyboarsd and writes songs. Video, remixed live and soundtracked by the band, is also a strong component of Moon Medicine’s performance. (Martin Luther, lead vocalist and guitarist, a fellow Morehouse alum, performed with the Roots and was featured in Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe”; DJ Jahi Sundance has toured with Me’Shell Ndegéocello and Robert Glasper; drummer Swiss Criss has toured with Black-Eyed Peas and John Legend; and bass player Mark Hines, who also live-mixes video, is a constant collaborator with DJ Rich Medina. After their performance in Atlanta, Moon Medicine will perform at Lincoln Center in April).

Biggers first started playing piano as a kid, a practice which led to his initial interest in painting. “I took piano lessons but I quickly bored with those because back then they were teaching strictly classical, and I was not so motivated by that at the time,” says Biggers who grew up in LA, the son of a surgeon and an English teacher. “I quit lessons, but I kept playing. Eventually I taught myself how to play by ear, playing the songs I heard on the radio. Then I started to listen to jazz, but I couldn’t really keep up. At that point, I started to paint and draw pictures of the people I was not able to play at the time: Thelonius Monk, Earl Gardner, people like that. I realized it was an easy way of communicating and exposing my contemporaries to people we were not being exposed to in school, so I started to expand the people I was portraying into Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Marcus Garvey.”

For Biggers, it’s all become part of working in disciplines where he doesn’t even necessarily see distinctions. “Through the years of working out of these many disciplines I’ve started to develop a vocabulary that works through all those disciplines,” he says. “It’s very organic, and I don’t really know what’s coming up next; but I just sort of trained myself to listen and be responsive to it.”