Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch Codex

An index of people, subjects, themes, and other influences behind Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch by Jordan Amirkhani, Sergio Bessa, and the Sanford Biggers Studio

Afrofuturism (noun)

A cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture, the capabilities of technology, and speculative fiction. It encompasses a range of media and is employed by artists interested in envisioning Black futures that stem from African diasporic experiences. While it is commonly associated with science fiction, it can also encompass other genres such as fantasy, alternate history, and magical realism.


Big Dada (work of art in the exhibition)

Developed in reaction to World War I, the Dada movement consisted of artists who rejected traditional forms of aesthetic beauty, reason, and militarism as a way of critiquing Western capitalist society and the horrors of mass industrialization. Dada artists’ investment in satire, irony, radical politics, scathing forms of humor, and existential questioning of fine art and its histories resonates deeply in Biggers’s practice and conceptual formation, as the title of this work of art reflects. However, the title is also a nod to the phrase “Big Data”—a field that develops ways to analyze and systemically extract information and organize sets of data too large or complex to understand in traditional ways. By combining an historical movement dependent on questioning through humor and a contemporary field of discourse concerned with the interpretation and gathering of vast archives of information and knowledge, Biggers suggests that art and history are sites of critical resistance and vehicles of archival knowledge as large and looming as data sets on a computer. In this exhibition, quilts stand as material metaphors for working with history and information in this way.


Bricolage (noun)

Derived from the French verb bricoler, meaning “to tinker,” or “do-it-yourself.” The construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work constructed using mixed media. It has been described in the arts as the remixture, reconstruction, and reuse of separate materials or artifacts to produce new meanings and insights.


Cheshire (Guapa) (work of art in the exhibition)

Chesire (Guapa) borrows on the fictional Cheshire Cat known for his elusive behavior and mischievous grin. The first known appearance of the Cheshire Cat in literature is in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) by Francis Grose (English, 1731-1791), but it was popularized by the author Lewis Carroll (English, 1832-1898) in his novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Alice first encounters the Cheshire Cat in the kitchen of the Duchess’s house and, later on, in the branches of a tree where it gradually appears and disappears at will. The character also engages Alice in perplexing and, at times, philosophical conversation. The Cheshire Cat stands as a symbol of menace and amusement, dark histories and entertainment. It has been proposed that the Cheshire Cat is a stand-in for Carroll’s Oxford University professor and mentor Edward Bouverie Pusey (English, 1800-1882), who was known as the Patristic Catenary (or “chain”); as a trained mathematician, Carroll would have been familiar with other meanings of catenary, namely, the curve of a horizontally suspended chain suggestive of a cat’s grin.


Cocles, Horatius (Roman, life dates unknown)

Horatius Cocles was said to be an officer in the army of the early Roman Republic and became famous for defending Rome’s Pons Sublicius bridge from the invading army of the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena, in the sixth century BC during the wars between Rome and Clusium. Cocles was a member of the ancient patrician house of the Horatii, a celebrated warrior, and is said to have obtained his nickname “Cocles” (or “one-eyed”) after losing an eye in the battle at the Sublicius bridge. This story of Horatius at the Bridge appears across many ancient texts with many philosophers and writers questioning the truthfulness and accuracy of the narrative, but it continues to be recounted in literature and political rhetoric as a metaphor for the heroism of those who hold enemies at bay and those who die for political causes.


Code (noun)

In communication and information processing, code is a system of rules to convert information—such as a letter, word, sound, image, or gesture—into another form for communication (sometimes shortened or secret) through a communication channel or for storage in a storage medium.


Code-switching (noun)

In linguistics, code-switching (or language alternation) occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation or situation in a manner consistent with the syntax and phonology of each variety. This common practice may begin in one language and finish in another. The earliest use of the term “code-switching” in print was by Lucy Shepard Freeland (American, 1890-1972) in her 1951 book Language of the Sierra Miwok, referring to the indigenous Miwok people of California.


Codex (noun):

A manuscript book of handwritten contents especially of Scripture, classics, or ancient annals and the historical ancestor of the modern book. In the third and fourth centuries AD, the codex began to replace the older scroll as the preferred form for longer writings. Unlike the scroll, the invention permitted writing on both sides of a sheet, made it easy to locate particular passages, and could contain extended texts. Codices (plural) were usually written on parchment made from papyrus (the ancestor of paper) or the prepared skins of goats or sheep.


Combines (noun)

“Combine” is a term artist Jasper Johns (American, born 1930) first used to describe a body of work by Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008) that consisted of three-dimensional objects integrated into paintings as a way of collapsing historical divisions between painting and sculpture; art objects and everyday objects; and thus, the realms of art and everyday life. Items attached to paintings might include three-dimensional everyday objects, such as clothing or furniture, as well as printed matter such as newsprint or photographs. Recent scholarship and criticism has pointed to these works’ overt resemblance to work by Black American artists of Rauschenberg’s generation who were working with assemblage and found objects in the rural South—work Rauschenberg would have seen during his upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas, and the Southern Delta region.


Ecclesiastes 1 (KJV) (work of art in the exhibition)

While its true author remains unknown, the book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally associated with King Solomon of Israel and encompasses his conclusions on the meaning of life and his dissatisfaction with it. Known as “The Vanity of Life,” Ecclesiastes: 1 begins with Solomon’s bold claim that “all is vanity” or “all is meaningless,” with a final conclusion that his efforts to be and make “something new” are futile and will be remembered by no one. This invocation is perhaps the artist talking to himself, questioning his purpose as a maker and a man. The passage reads, in part, as follows:

The words of the preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, “See, this is new?” it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.


Harlequin (work of art in the exhibition)

Harlequins are one of the most recognizable figures of the zanni comedic servant characters of the commedia dell’arte, an improvised form of popular theater originated in northern Italy in the sixteenth century by traveling troupes. Known for his checkered costume and black leather mask, the harlequin character was known for his physical agility, slapstick comedic persona, multifaceted nature, and his cunning, shrewd, and “trickster-like” behavior, at times the catalyst for political and social subversion. Recent scholarship has pointed to the harlequin’s mask as an early iteration of blackface and minstrelsy due to the exaggerated physical proportions of the mask and the racist representation of Black personhood as foolish and deceptive.


Jargon (noun)

The specialized, technical words or expressions used by a particular profession, group, or area of activity. Jargon is normally employed in a particular communicative context and may not be well understood outside that context. Jargon differs from “slang” in being expressive and secretive in nature.


Kubrick’s Rube (work of art in the exhibition)

Biggers’s title references the Rubik’s Cube, a tricky three-dimensional combination puzzle made of twenty-six miniature cubes constructed to move and rotate in a specific unfolding, holding millions of permutations in its solution. The title also references the films of director Stanley Kubrick (American, 1928-1999) and his epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is filled with pioneering special effects and unconventional cinematic techniques to address the existential questions of artificial intelligence, human evolution, technology, and space travel. Biggers’s juxtaposition of antique quilts with science fiction imagery points to the artist’s interest in the elasticity of historical time and the layers of information and meaning alive in these historical artifacts.


Lukasa (noun)

Roughly translated as “the long hand,” or “claw,” lukasa is a memory device created, manipulated, and protected by the Bambudye—a once powerful secret society of the Luba people indigenous to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Taking a variety of shapes such as stools, staffs, figures, or tablets, lukasa are roughly the same size (approximately eight to ten inches long) and are often made of wood with decorations of metal, shells, or beads, and are incised or embossed with carved symbols. Thought to stimulate the recollection of important people, places, things, relationships, and events, court historians known as bana balute (“men of memory”) run their fingertips across the surface of the lukasa while reciting genealogies, migration stories, epic tales, and stories of cultural and military heroes.


Mandala (noun)

A geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing the attention of practitioners, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. These devotional images are present in a variety of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Shintoism and are used as maps or diagrams of an ideal universe. They are often painted on scrolls and taken with travelers over long distances across the Eurasian continent.


Mooney, Paul (American, 1941-2021)

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Paul Mooney was an American comedian, writer, social critic, and actor. He is best known for his boundary-pushing routines about racism, white supremacy, and social justice. A longtime behind-the-scenes collaborator with fellow comedian Richard Pryor, the two worked together on a variety of Pryor’s television specials, films, and late night appearances including early episodes of Sanford and Son and the film Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986). Mooney also wrote and performed on Fox’s In Living Color and, later, on Chappelle’s Show in the early 2000s. Mooney died in 2021 after a long struggle with prostate cancer.


Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Located in Center City Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “Mother Bethel” was established in 1794 on what is now the oldest continuously Black-owned plot of land in the United States. Founded by Absalom Jones (American, 1746-1818) and Richard Allen (American, 1760-1831), the church was proposed in 1791 by members of the Free African Society of Philadelphia out of a desire to create a space for autonomous African American worship and community in the city. Across the nineteenth century, the church was a beacon to the still-enslaved, serving as a Philadelphia sanctuary and station along the Underground Railroad to freedom. Sanford Biggers was commissioned in 2009 to realize a work for the church, resulting in his early research and construction of quilt-based works.


Negerplastik (work of art in the exhibition)

A member of the Berlin Dada group, Carl Einstein (German, 1885-1940) was a pivotal figure in the development of European modernism during the years between World War I and World War II. His book Negerplastik (Negro Sculpture), published in 1915, represents the first European critical response to African sculpture and challenged various prejudices and racist misconceptions around the subject. Published to introduce European audiences to African sculpture, the book incorporates numerous black-and-white photographic plates of sculptures culled from Belgian and French colonies in Africa; the sculptures lack the hats, beads, and feathers that originally adorned them. Einstein’s desire to educate his presumed white audiences about these works and to affirm that African sculpture should be treated and interpreted as equal to European fine art falls flat as he presented the works in historically inaccurate poses, environments, and adornments. The book incentivized numerous twentieth-century African artists and merchants to begin making tchotchkes based on Einstein’s inaccurate photographs for sale to white European tourists.


Nimbus (noun)

A luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere surrounding a god or goddess when on Earth. A cloud or atmosphere (as of romance) about a person or thing. An indication (such as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign, otherwise known as an aureole, gloriole, or halo. A rain cloud.


Nyabinghi (work of art in the exhibition)

A legendary Rwandan/Ugandan/Tanzanian woman whose name roughly translates as “the one who possesses many things.” A cult of worship and veneration developed around her in the early 1800s in southern regions of Uganda, with worshipers bringing offerings to mediums who would negotiate with her spirit on the believer’s behalf. This religious sect found ground with a range of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist groups across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, inspired by the group’s investment in pre-colonial spiritual and cultural practices. By the 1930s, knowledge of a “secret society” of Nyabinghi devoted to abolishing white colonial rule and debilitating economic extraction practices circulated across the Caribbean and influenced early practitioners of Jamaican Rastafari – an Afrocentric social and religious movement calling for the resettlement of all African diasporic communities in Africa (known to them as “Zion”). By the 1950s Rasta musicians in Jamaica had developed a style known as “Nyabinghi drumming,” which combined pre-colonial musical forms from West African, African American, and South American indigenous groups. In the work of the same name, Biggers’s assemblage of quilt pieces bound in frames holds at its center a silhouette of a woman wearing a headdress that is perhaps Nyabinghi herself.


Polke, Sigmar (German, 1941-2010)

A German artist known for his unconventional mixing of materials and styles in paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Together with fellow artists Gerhard Richter (German, born 1932) and Konrad Fischer (German, 1939-1996), Polke founded in 1963 the Capitalist Realist movement, an irreverent critique of both the Social Realist style that still prevailed in the Soviet Union, and the consumer mentality of capitalist societies in the postwar era. It was in this context that Polke started to paint on industrially produced furnishing fabric. In subsequent years, as he turned his attention to Germany’s turbulent history, the kitschy patterns he used as backgrounds strangely heightened the horrors of war.


Powers, Harriet (American, 1837-1910)

Powers, born into slavery in rural Georgia, was an American artist and quiltmaker. Historians have proposed that much of her early life was spent on Nestor Plantation in Madison County, Georgia, where it is believed she learned to sew from other enslaved persons. Historian Kyra E. Hicks recently attributed a letter to Powers in which Powers explains how she came to read and write and the ways in which Bible stories provided inspiration for the stories told in her own quilts. Powers’s use of traditional applique and piecework techniques in her quilts demonstrate a knowledge of African and African American handiwork, which blend geometric and abstract designs with figural forms to communicate local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events.


Quilt 17: Sugar, Pork, Bourbon (work of art in the exhibition)

In the top right corner of Biggers’s complex quilt composition, turned 90 degrees to the left, is a silhouette of a man known as Gordon, who escaped enslavement in 1863. A photograph of Gordon, showing the brutal scarring left on his back from violent whippings received while enslaved, became one of the most widely circulated photographs of the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War. Biggers includes Gordon in his work, posing him as a land surveyor, but has retained only the outline of his body as a way of protecting and stopping the circulation of sensationalized images of Black pain, suffering, and trauma. The quilt’s title is also a reference to the artist’s memories and experiences of his first trip to Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby: pork served at celebratory barbeques and bourbon and sugar as nods to the key ingredients for the classic mint julep cocktail often served at the event.


Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

Created by a group of women and their ancestors who live or have lived in the isolated African American hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, along the Alabama River, the quilts of Gee’s Bend are among the most important African American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art in the United States. The area is named after the enslaver Joseph Gee, who established a cotton plantation in 1816; the plantation was sold to Mark Pettway in 1845 and many members of the community still carry his surname. After emancipation, many of those formerly enslaved remained on this isolated land as sharecroppers. Beginning in the 1960s, the community gained attention for their production and archival collection of quilts due to the attention of curator, historian, and folk art collector William Arnett and his Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia. The distinct style developed by this community of women departs from classical quilt making and is influenced in part by Native American textiles, African textile patterns, and a spirit of improvisation and geometric minimalism dictated by the community’s isolation and relative lack of materials. In 2003, the Gee’s Bend Collective, owned and operated by the women of Gee’s Bend, was established as a way to protect and support the creation and promotion of their community’s quilts.


Quo Vadis? (work of art in the exhibition)

“Quo vadis?” Is a Latin phrase meaning “Where are you marching?” or, more commonly, “Where are you going?” The phrase originates in the Christian tradition as the first words St. Peter utters to the risen Christ on the Appian Way. Peter, fleeing persecution by Emperor Nero in Rome, encounters Christ and asks “Lord, where are you going?” Christ replies, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” St. Peter, inspired by Christ’s bravery, turns back towards Rome to be martyred. This ancient phrase, associated with tenacity and courage, can connect with the heavily debated history regarding the use of patterned quilts as signposts along the Underground Railroad, in which context, supposed coded messages such as “keep moving” or “here is safety” could be passed from one person to another seeking freedom.

Sacred geometry (noun)

Sacred geometry ascribes symbolic and spiritual meanings to certain geometric shapes and proportions and is associated with the belief that a supreme being is the geometer of the world. This is visible in the geometric propositions used in the design and construction of religious structures such as churches, temples, mosques, monuments, altars, pagodas, and mandalas. The first complete writings on sacred geometry in Europe were written by the seventeenth-century mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (German, 1571-1630), who believed in the geometric underpinnings of the cosmos and rooted his theories in Enlightenment Era debates about the mathematical principles that posited the presence of the divine across various historical eras and cultures. Geometric patterns and intricate spatial repetitions can be found in many of Sanford Biggers’s quilt-based works, pointing to his interest and knowledge of the historical layers and multicultural references at work in geometric visual codes.


Schaeffer, Pierre (French, 1910-1995)

A French engineer, writer, and composer, Schaeffer was the founder, in 1951, of the highly influential Research Group on Concrete Music in Paris, which advocated the use of pre-recorded sounds for composing. His experiments with magnetic tape and loops are the precursors of the electronic music that blossomed in the early 1970s in Europe, spearheaded by groups such as Roxy Music and Kraftwerk. Schaeffer’s ideas also made an important contribution to jazz through the work of producer Teo Macero (American, 1925-2008), who famously made use of loops, delays, reverbs, echoes, cuts, and splices in the production of a pivotal album by Miles Davis (American, 1926-1991), Bitches Brew (1970). Ultimately, the experimental work pioneered by Schaeffer became popularized by early hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy.


Tate, Greg (American,1957-2021)

An American writer, musician, journalist, and producer, Tate’s powerful style and investment in African American cultural production helped to elevate hip-hop and street art to the level of jazz and Abstract Expressionism. Tate’s writing exploded onto the New York cultural scene in the 1980s when he began contributing freelance reviews on Black music and art to the alternative news and culture weekly, The Village Voice. His tastes varied widely as did his style of writing, which combined pop culture and its effects with French literary theory. Tate’s first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992), catalyzed a young generation of writers of color with its powerful language, kaleidoscopic range, and easy erudition. Sanford Biggers has dedicated the presentation of Codeswitch at the Speed Art Museum to the memory of Tate, who died at the age of 64 on December 7, 2021.


The Underground Railroad and Quilts

The use of quilts as signposts and the belief that, during the antebellum period, runaway slaves relied on a network of signals conveyed in the design and display of quilts, which carried encoded messages, remains a fraught and contested hypothesis for historians. Academic and textile historians have not documented written, oral, or material sources to confirm the hypothesis that the coded messages were created and transferred into quilts. Some historians, such as Cuesta Benberry, note that “signals-to-slaves” stories were orally transmitted and that in cultures that favor “the written word,” oral traditions are often pitched against textual ones. Other experts have countered this, with Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. noting that the connection between quilts and the Underground Railroad is “one of the oddest myths propagated in all of African American history.” Gates echoes quilt historian Carolyn L. Mazloomi’s statement that “There is no proof. It’s a wonderful romantic story, but there’s no proof.”