Biggers, Sanford

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Sanford Biggers



Sanford Biggers creates mixed-media art installations that explore the many ways in which different cultures are interconnected. The relationships between Asian traditions and African-American popular culture particularly interest him, and he employs sculpture, found objects, movement, and video to address this theme. As he explained to Cincinnati Enquirer writer Marilyn Bauer, "The spirituality of Shinto in Japan, Buddhism in India and the spirituality of the African Diaspora - Yoruba and Santeria…I think these traditions are still inside us, latent. We don't get to express them until we tap into them with film, art, dance."

Influenced by Eclectic Artistic Sources

Born on September 22, 1970, in Los Angeles, California, Biggers grew up in the city's middle-class Baldwin Hills neighborhood, where he absorbed influences from both mainstream popular and hip-hop cultures. The family took trips to Disneyland, for example, but Biggers also grew up break dancing, deejaying, and doing graffiti. In fact, he told Bauer, "Graffiti is how I started doing art."

Biggers gained a wider appreciation for and knowledge of art and culture in college. He attended Syracuse University's international program in Florence, Italy, in 1991, and earned a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College in 1992. After graduation he lived in Japan for two years, teaching English and art in the city of Nagoya. While in Japan, Biggers began to study Zen Buddhism, a spiritual practice that has remained a major influence in his work. He did further training at the Maryland Institute College of Art and at the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture before earning an M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. Since then he has been based in New York City.

Though he began as a painter, Biggers soon discovered that he was more interested in objects themselves than in how he was able to represent them on a canvas. As he observed to Lauren Wilcox in an interview in Tout-Fait, he realized that objects he picked up on the street held inherent power. "It isn't about depicting—it's about seeing authenticity right in front of you," he explained. The way in which the object displayed wear and tear, for example, conveyed much about how and by whom the object had been used and what it had meant. Such objects became the focal points of Biggers's art installations. In 1993 he had his first solo exhibition, "In the Mind's Eye," in Los Angeles, and in 1996 his "Gomi no Tendankai" was shown in Nagoya, Japan. His works were also included in several group exhibitions in the 1990s and early 2000s, including "Magical, Mythical, Monumental" at Baltimore's Green Street Space and "Freestyle" at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

"I begin with found and mass-produced materials that bespeak a pre-existing history and a point of reference," Biggers explained in comments quoted in Contemporary Artists. "However seemingly abstract or distant, I transform them." This transformation sometimes communicates the object's spiritual importance; it can also offer a critique of the ways in which these objects are commercialized. "Mandala of Co-option," for example, consists of five clear plastic Buddha statues inside of which float various objects, many of which are associated with hip-hop culture, such as thick gold chains, fat shoelaces, and microphones. The Buddhas are manufactured in Mexico, and the souvenirs are made in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. According to the artist's Web site, the piece shows how easily we accept cultural co-option—the process by which one culture incorporates elements of another as its own. Taking a less ironic approach, "Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II" explores the confluence of break-dancing and Asian spirituality. The piece, a linoleum floor installation fashioned like a Buddhist mandala (a circular pictogram used as an aid in meditation), was used for the Bronx Community College's Battle of the Boroughs break dance competition in 2001.

Explored Various Cultures

While several of his works refer to Asian culture, Biggers focuses on middle-class America for his project entitled "a small world." The project juxtaposes home-movie footage from his childhood and that of a friend, showing both children playing piano, eating dinner with family, and playing with toys. In comments on The Charlie Rose Show, included on the artist's Web site, Biggers said that the piece "basically compares the life of a middle-class Jewish family from the east coast and a middle-class black family from the west coast." The footage shows that each family engages in rituals that are basically identical, yet neither family is at all aware of the other. What Biggers found especially interesting about this project, he told Rose, was that it shows that the country's diverse cultures are united by economic status, which dissolves ethnic differences; at the same time, however, this dynamic makes ethnicity all the more important, since it is the only thing by which a culture can maintain a distinct identity.

Among Biggers's other cultural explorations is "Both/And Not Either/Or," an installation of 12 pieces displayed at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 2004. The largest piece, a painting entitled "Kalenda," consists of footprints suggesting dance notation. Biggers told Cincinnati Post writer Jerry Stein that the piece refers to dances that slaves did to communicate secretly among themselves. In "Kalenda," however, the steps are from pop dances of the 1970s. According to Stein, "Biggers sees the original slave dances plotting freedom as having descended into frivolous disco use." Another piece, "Hip Hop Ni Sasagu (In Memory of Hip Hop)" features a Buddhist prayer bell made from melted-down hip-hop jewelry. Biggers explained that his intent was to return hip-hop to its more spiritual origins. "Sticky Fingers," a mixed-media installation, features a giant leather pick-comb with a clenched fist above a bed with shiny red sheets and faux-fur covering. The work suggests the co-option of symbols popular during the Black Power movement of the early 1970s. A highlight of "Both/And Not Either/Or" is the video work "Danpatsu." In this piece Biggers, wearing traditional Japanese robes, sits in a forest while a Japanese woman in a kimono cuts his dreadlocks. This action suggests the ritual haircutting of a sumo wrestler's topknot when he retires. The piece, wrote Bret McCabe in Baltimore City Paper, indicates "Biggers' earnest respect for both the artistry of hip-hop and Buddhism's and Shinto's symbolic reverence."

At a Glance …

Born on September 22, 1970, in Los Angeles, CA. Education: Syracuse University, Department of International Programs Abroad, Florence, Italy, 1990-1991; Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, BA, 1992; Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD, 1996-1997; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Showhegan, ME, 1998; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL, MFA, 1999.

Career: English and art instructor, Nagoya, Japan, 1992-94; California Afro-American Museum, painting and drawing instructor, 1995; Youth Opportunities Unlimited, painting and drawing instructor, 1996; Chelsea Vocational High School (Eyebeam/New York City Annenberg Challenge for Arts Education), New York, NY, teacher-in-residence, 2000; Cooper Union Saturday Program, New York, NY, codirector, 2000-; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York NY, artist-in-residence, 2000; P.S. 1 Studio Residency, 2000, Socrates Sculpture Park, World Trade Center, artist-in-residence, 2001; ARCUS Project, Japan, artist-in-residence, 2003.

Awards: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Nelson Raymond Fellowship, and Graduate Incentive Scholarship, 1999; Pennies From Heaven/New York Community Trust Grant, 2004.

Addresses: Web—

In an interview in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, featured on Biggers's Web site, the artist observed that work, for him, is akin to a meditative state: "Your hands, mind, and eyes are not necessarily relaying coherent thoughts and signals to each other," he explained. "It is no longer being ‘inside’ your mind, but having a visceral, preconscious notion of how to work." At the same time, he added, it is crucial to invite audience participation in his art: "To me experience is so magical that it becomes what my work is about," he said. "I think there is a ‘universal vibe’ that connects us even if we never have the chance to meet…I think some of my projects are basically experiments around this idea."

Biggers returned to Japan in 2003 as an artist-in-residence with the ARCUS project. He has also been artist-in-residence at Socrates Sculpture Park, the World Trade Center, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. His works are in several collections, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Doron Sebbag Art Collection in Israel, and the Altoid Curiously Strong Collection in New York.

Selected works

Group exhibitions

Magical, Mythical, Monumental, Green Street Space (MICA), Baltimore, MD, 1997.

Doing Our Own Thing, Christopher Art Gallery, Prairie State College, Chicago, IL, 1998.

Freestyle, Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, 2001.

Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 2002.

Black Belt, Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, 2003.

Somewhere Better Than This Place, Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2003.

Reverse Negatives, The Gershman Y, Philadelphia, PA, 2004.

Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX, 2005.

The Dalai Lama Portrait Project: The Missing Peace, the 100 for Tibet, traveling, 2005.

Solo exhibitions

In the Mind's Eye, Wight Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1993.

Gomi no Tendankai, Cabaret Mago, Nagoya, Japan, 1996.

Psychic Windows, Matrix Gallery, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA, 2002.

Afro Temple, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX, 2002.

Creation/Dissipation, Trafo Gallery, Budapest, Hungary, 2002.

Both/And No Either/Or, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2004.

Sanford Biggers, Mary Goldman Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2004.

Sanford Biggers, Triple Candie, New York, NY, 2005.

Notions, Kenny Schachter Gallery, London, UK, 2005.



Pendergast, Sara, and Tom Pendergast, eds., Contemporary Artists, 5th ed., Vol. 1, Gale, 2002.


Art in America, January, 2005, p. 132.

Cincinnati Enquirer, May 23, 2004.

Cincinnati Post, June 8, 2004.

New York Arts, March-April, 2007.


"In Review: Urbanite #7, January 05," Urbanite, (June 29, 2007).

"Ninja, Please," Baltimore City Paper, (June 28, 2007).

Sanford Biggers, (April 9, 2007).

"Transformation and Tradition: Interview with Sanford Biggers," Tout-Fait, (April 9, 2007).