Cartographer’s Conundrum Revisited – Sanford Biggers Was Right


Sanford Biggers. The Cartographer's Conundrum (2012). Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.



The Cartographer’s Conundrum (2012), Sanford Biggers            (USA b.1970, Installation view from art21)


Church pews ascend towards the heavens as they recede from the altar which is formed of a star-burst of organ pipes emanating from a pile of old musical instruments: trumpet, guitar, French horn… and a baby grand piano hung askew. Those wooden pews become translucent Lucite as they move up, reflecting the colored light coming through the windows. Sounds of spiritual Brazilian music permeate the space…

The environment created by Biggers here is completely engrossing —it is his intention to create an atmosphere where the viewer can be ‘lost’ by being engaged viscerally and emotionally, through the eye and the ear—a deep experiential involvement. But the viewer is not lost for long—for the ‘guiding light’ is on the balcony above the ‘altar’: Here is hung the reproduction of a mural Quilting Party (1980) by John T. Biggers (USA 1924-2001, possibly a cousin). It’s full of geometric patterns and futuristic visions in what is called AfrofuturismQuilting Party is the backstory for Sanford Biggers’ Cartographer’s Conundrum (2/4–10/31/2012) at MassMoCA  in North Adams, Massachusetts.  Quilts, in the old American South, were allegedly used by slaves to communicate information about escapes; often by the way they were folded at a certain time.

I wrote about Biggers here three years ago. At the time, I was responding to his assertion that his exhibitions did not need explanatory wall texts. Here after a re-visit (virtually) to Cartographer’s Conundrum and reading the many reviews (of varying quality and understanding) of the show, I try to put his wall text-less art in context.

First, I agree, this exhibition did not need wall text—though he did say that reading the backstory is helpful. So basically he just does not want the reading and the viewing to be in the same room. The reading is sort of ‘priming’ the mind into a receptive mode, like marinating meat before cooking. But also, I think his art is so visually rich and enticing that it etches a deep memory in the viewer—who, once intrigued, may otherwise proceed to read the backstory. The latter is what happened to me after my first experience of his powerful Notions (2006) in London. The refreshing and energetic nature of his installation jolted me into a new state of mind.

The human body-brain together learns slowly; and old habits and viewpoints change even more slowly because they are entrenched, often fortified by hallowed religious rituals, or political and financial enticements. So it follows that the most effective kind of learning involves the changing of these set-habits which are linked to muscle actions programed in our unconscious brain stem—as in the act of praying. The same process also holds many of one’s beliefs, unconsciously picked up over a lifetime: religious, moral, ethical, racial, sexual… that are similarly entrenched and guarded in the body-brain, refusing to budge. Such strong habits are the cause of so much violence in our world because change is so uncomfortable to the point that some people would kill rather than switch.

Sanford Biggers is a multifarious talent, a pianist, composer, bandleader, visual artist, philosopher, teacher, and techno-tinkerer: he has fashioned a baby grand piano into a mini-player piano which can be played or self-play with a pre-recorded CD of his own music. He holds a professorship at New York’s Columbia University and has lectured in many others, including a teaching residency at Harvard.  All his activities have one single goal: communication. He believes effective communication can change habits. (Waving arms and screaming ‘peace’ may grab attention but apparently have changed few but facile minds).

His views of the condition of black people in America are nuanced and broad—seeing it as part of the global African diaspora—and through the eyes of a traveler. In addition to travels in Africa, he has spent time in residencies in Europe and Asia: from Florence, Italy, the cradle of Renaissance art; to studying Buddhism in Japan (which he calls his spiritual home).  He speaks of a Japanese traveling reggae sound system which clashes with other sound systems:  They had a better understanding of Rastafarianism than most people I knew stateside”

Biggers’ art is as wide as it is deep, addressing social, political, historical, racial… as well as philosophical issues. His ultimate aim is to communicate information in such a way that it can become knowledge which is a fluid kind of habit that can respond differently to different situations.

In a far-ranging conversation (2006) with poet and musician Saul Williams, a fellow alumnus from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia,* they revealed a comradery, an agreement on the essence of art, even how an artist could make a living—like at what point does one draw the line between promotion and artistic integrity (authenticity)? Said Williams: “I feel that a lot of the poetry I am writing is really the residue of the work that I am doing to become a more harmonious person.”

Biggers spoke of where art came from and how it could become ‘impotent’ when embraced by the masses, often for reasons beyond art: “…Hip-Hop is like, everything and nothing to me. It is everything because when it first hit, it wasn’t about the fad… [or anything] but being really new and fresh and coming from someplace close to US! Now it often seems impotent.”

Art, for Biggers, is above all communication. In old African traditions “There is no specific name for poetry, or dance, or music, or art, it was all done in the name of communication and sharing…”  Music and ritual performance are for him all part of a system of visceral and emotional direct-actions and responses; a communication where language takes a back seat. He believes the audience should first be engaged on a ‘gut’ level. His art aims to first ‘grab’—even on a superficial level—a viewer’s attention; and then it proceeds to reveal further meanings, layer by layer. He uses a ‘coded’ language of metaphors and symbols and wants to explore “how symbols operate within the mind, and that visceral affinity humans have for symbols [e.g. the meditative mandala in Buddhism].”

Learning and memory are much on his mind—how information is transformed into knowledge within a human being. And for him, symbols and rituals are good conduits.  (In today’s biology we know that the actions of the body have a direct route to the mind —even though artists and yogis have always known that.) He wants the viewer to come away from his exhibitions with a knowledge—which I certainly did in my first encounter with his work Notions  show back in London in 2006 in which a blinding disco ball illuminated lively dance steps on the walls and floor. That memory of glitter and entertainment now represents to me a heart-rending story of the struggle of the slaves for freedom and survival—yet viewed by their masters as entertainment. **

There is no more powerful and explicit example of the nature of knowledge leading to creation than what Marcus Samuelsson (the celebrated Ethiopian-Swedish chef, a fellow Harlem resident) described during a conversation with Biggers at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2012) on how he developed a new dish (I’m paraphrasing): “…In the process of cleaning the foie gras, it occurred to me a new way of cooking it. That cleaning action [muscle memory] reconnected the emotions and sensations I experienced growing up working in my grandmother’s kitchen. I was thinking about the liver’s texture and its umami [special 5th taste]. That’s authorship [authenticity].” ***

Sanford Biggers is right after all—art to be effective as a form of communication—should not need verbal explanations alongside, which could detract from a viewer’s in-the-moment, unconscious, visceral immersion that is important for knowledge. But it remains true though, that in today’s world, far from the old village square, the museum is a very different setting for showing art. Most people go to a museum as an occasional event, not as an everyday habit—and reading, before or after, is far from their mind.  Furthermore, making Biggers’ kind of art available to large numbers is still a difficult task—museums are physical spaces that can accommodate a very limited number of people compared to the internet.


*     The all-male liberal arts college was founded in 1867, two years after the Civil War. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was an alumnus, class of 1948.

**     “…‘Calenda’… makes reference to a dance that slaves adopted and which was initially perceived by their masters as both entertainment and a form of exercise. But it transpired that there were deeper and more subversive thoughts being expressed by their workforce, namely methods of escape… As a traditional spiritual reminded the escapees: “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,” an Africanized reference to an asterism within the constellation Ursa Major, or the ‘Big Dipper.’ Two stars in its bowl point to Polaris – the North Star, and for the slaves, freedom via the Underground Railroad”   – rovetv  

***   Cleaning the precious foie gras in the kitchen is a delicate exercise of pulling out the veins in one piece without breaking the precious goose liver. While he was doing it he thought of why the dish was always served in a tureen (French tradition); and the American young chefs were then serving them pan-seared with figs and mangoes on toast. Such connections led to his own new dish.


2016 3 6   Can anyone of us imagine… See latest update here.

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