The historical relationship between the Western avant-garde and the art of Africa is one of objects stolen, fetishized, and aesthetically cannibalized by European modernists like Picasso and Modigliani. Paradigmatic histories of Western art attempt to keep these tensions at a low simmer; in the nine works comprising Harlem-based artist Sanford Biggers’s exhibition “the pasts they brought with them” (all 2015 or 2016), they rise to a boil.
For three of the paintings on view, Biggers employed antique quilts in lieu of canvases. Pieced together from scraps of worn clothes and designed to provide cover for generations, quilts retain in their fibers the traces of those they once kept warm. The quilts in Biggers’s works speak not only to personal histories and the journey of heirlooms but also to forced migrations. A pair of black lips, reminiscent of the mouths of Warhol’s Marilyns, smiles vacuously from the center of the toothsomely textured Hat and Beard, which combines gummy patches of acrylic, breathy bursts of spray paint, and scratchy glitter crusts on appliquéd fabric. A black beauty mark above the upper lip proves, upon closer inspection, to be a silk-screened reproduction of the infamous illustration Description of a Slave Ship (ca. 1801). The tiny schematic, in which black bodies are shown packed like timber in the ship’s hold, repeats in oblong petals around a white nucleus of fabric.
Occupying adjacent pedestals in the main gallery were two petite figures in bronze, pointedly titled BAM (For Michael) and BAM (Sandra), in memory of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, two black victims of police brutality. These are not the polished bronzes of classical sculpture; their surfaces are waxy, pockmarked, and disfigured. Michael stands despite missing a foot, and Sandra’s face has been splintered away. The crackling sound of gunfire drew the viewer into an adjacent gallery, where a pair of videos illuminated the statues’ ravaged appearance. An unseen gunman “carves” a wooden sculpture of a footballer with bullets that shatter the figure’s shoulder and topple him from the ball he stands on. The video and bronze incarnations of Michael chart different stages in the savaging of a black body in miniature.
The video involving the Sandra sculpture reverses this process: the footage plays backward and in slow-motion, to make whole again an African statuette of a woman with a baby on her back. Chips of wood swoop back to their places of origin; an arm shattered by gunfire reforms. This harrowing reminder of the continuing efforts to reconstruct the circumstances of Bland’s death poses formidable questions: What is the relationship between racist violence visited upon black Americans and the exploitation of the cultural resources of the African diaspora? How might global art histories be reconstructed to appreciate the arts of Africa without assimilating them into Western art historical models? Deliberately disallowed from enjoying the beauty of Biggers’s textiles without the sound of gunfire ringing in their ears, viewers were prompted to wonder what change must take place before violence and black Americans can be finally and honestly decoupled in the landscape of American art.
“Sweet Funk-An Introspective,” the Brooklyn Museum’s sampling of 10 years of Sanford Biggers’s work (on view through Jan. 8), centers on the museum’s recently acquired Blossom (2007). Shown to advantage in a skylighted, domed gallery, it features a piano skewered by a substantial tree but nonetheless delivering, player-piano-style, a sonorous rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Several of the surrounding works share the song’s reference to lynching, including Cheshire (2007), a video that shows a number of black men trying one or two at a time, in all weather and with varying success, to climb a large tree; its soundtrack is another profoundly mournful version of “Strange Fruit,” performed by New York singer Imani Uzuri. Also titled Cheshire is a 5½-foot-wide illuminated sign in the shape of a big, grinning mouth (2008). With glaring impertinence, the lurid red mouth hangs high above Blossom and flashes, in racing sequence, its many lightbulb teeth.
Kalimba II (2002) involves a piano sawed in half and reconstituted. The two parts face each other but are divided by a wall: another image of music balked. In Bittersweet the Fruit (2002), a jewel-like video monitor set into a tree limb offers scrambled imagery of a piano and jumbled music; headphones dangle like nooses from the branch. Approaching racial violence from a different angle is Lotus (2007), a big glass disc held in an iron ring like a giant embroidery hoop, or the frame of a rose window. The delicate, floral-seeming patterns etched into the glass actually diagram the holds of cargo ships filled with shackled Africans.
The two-channel video Shuffle (The Carnival Within), 2009, alone in a room, features the Brazilian-born, Germany-based performer Ricardo Castillo. We see him applying clown makeup over his brown skin (in alternating shots, a child does the same) and examining the Cheshire sign, which hangs threateningly from a tree; Castillo is trussed to the tree at one point, but ultimately walks away.
In Shake (2011), a single-channel video projected onto a large freestanding screen that dominated the SculptureCenter’s “Sanford Biggers: Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” Castillo is, as in Shuffle, a troubadour, roaming Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, from its windswept oceanfront to its nighttime streets. He visits a coffin maker, stealing a gauzy, spangled coat with which he replaces his bright-blue blazer, adding silvery thigh-high boots with 5-inch heels: a death-defying shape-shifter in a hypnotically unstable environment.
Shake was joined by a handful of new works, including a sculpture of a bare-breasted red giantess in a massive raffia skirt, standing in a striped, transparent circus tent (A Jóia Do Orixá, 2011). Spotlights occasionally roved the cavernous space, illuminating the two trapeze swings (Backend Trick, 2011) that hung from its ceiling and regularly lurched into hectic motion. Despite its circus theme, or maybe because of it, this installation was darker in spirit than the Brooklyn Museum survey; it seems Biggers has lately been suppressing conceptual and visual elegance in favor of something more menacing, and more direct.
Photo: View of Sanford Biggers’s “Cosmic Voodoo Circus,” 2011, showing Constellation 6.0 (foreground), Cheshire (On Tilt), back left, and A Jóia Do Orixá (back right); at the SculptureCenter.