Five men in painted coveralls with faces hidden behind golden masks weaved throughout the crowd. As they filed on stage, one stood at the DJ booth, another at a keyboard, and one picked up his guitar while another lifted his bass. The final masked man sat behind the drums. Without an introduction, Moon Medicin—aka artist Sanford Biggers and his accompaniment—began what became an hour-long performance last night during a summer celebration at Neuehouse.
Biggers, a multidisciplinary artist who works in mediums ranging from drawing, video, and sculpture to original music and performance, draws inspiration from cultures and religions worldwide. His African American heritage, teaching for three years in Japan, and having residencies in countries such as Germany, Poland, and Hungary helped shape his beliefs. He has had solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center, and MASS MoCA, and has also had work in group exhibitions at the Whitney and Tate Modern.
Before music emanated from the speakers last night, yellow text scrolled across a screen hanging above the stage. The letters slowly disappeared like they do at the onset of Star Wars films, but rather than speaking of a fictional land, the text explained Juneteenth—African American independence day, June 19th—the day Texas abolished slavery.
The performance continued with live music and video projections, drastically cutting from a cover of "Next Girl" by the Black Keys and images of seductive cartoons set to newscasts of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Joe Biden. The visuals were then interspersed with archival footage of soldiers in combat and the atomic bomb, accompanied by lyrics like, “Turn off your radio. Come and join the crusade.” Although the piece seriously hinted at notions of history’s significance and our culture’s concerns, the crowd began dancing halfway through, turning it into an uplifting summer celebration.
After the performance, we sat down with Biggers to speak about everything from inspirations to his childhood and recent trip to South Africa.
What is the inspiration behind the costumes?
Well, before we were wearing customized Eight-Ball jackets, but they’re a little heavy. It’s hot as hell performing in those things, and they were all weird sizes, so the drummer’s all stuffed up. You need something a little lighter for the summer season, [laughs] and we wanted to go lo-fi. I met this really talented artist, and she knew exactly what to do with some Tyvek suits, so that’s how those happened. Then the masks are actually throwbacks to a piece [The Somethin’ Suite] I did at The Box for Performa 2007 with members of this group and others.
Yeah, I saw the video from that. How do you select the people you work with?
Usually it’s people I already have lasting relationships with. I like their vibe, and they like mine, and we can create, experiment, have patience, and then grow and evolve. But I’m also very blessed to have a lot of talented friends. Martin Luther is my oldest friend from the group. We’ve worked with each other for over a decade, but I’ve known most of them for at least 7 years.
How did you come up with what you wanted to project during the performance? Some of it spliced together your works like Shuffle and Shake, right?
Yes, some of them were my own original works, and then some were found footage from old TV shows and movies. I did the original montage years ago because I was doing a lecture about sculpture. Instead of being encyclopedic and showing old sculpture images I started to sculpt a video montage and talk about sculpture in a much more expanded format. The other original videos are from a trilogy I’ve been doing. The first one was shot in Germany, second one in Brazil, [and] the third one I’m shooting now—Ethiopia.
Why did you pick those countries?
I was doing a residency in Germany, so by default there. My main character was a Brazilian expat living in Germany, so I was like, “When I get the funding we’re going to do part two in Brazil.” I wanted to go there and I thought he needed to go there. We shot in Salvador de Bahia because, for me, it’s the most intact African culture outside of Africa. It’s a place of hybridity and a lot of interesting mix and fusion, which is the kind of work that I’m interested in making. Now I’m shooting in Ethiopia because the trilogy is actually going backwards in time, so I’m going back to the origin of human kind, which is Ethiopia.
All of these inspirations and lecturing about sculpture as a larger thing blend into the way you work with so many mediums. Do you start with the inspiration or the form—what’s that process like?
It comes in different whims. Sometimes it’s the idea and then I figure out a form. Sometimes the form, then I flesh out the idea. I can’t control it and I don’t know exactly what it is. That’s what keeps it very interesting. It’s very free.
I was going to say, how much of today was freestyle?
Oh yeah, I mean we know the basic forms but then we’re freestyling all the time. It’s very different than making a big installation where you’ve got to follow certain things to engineer it correctly.
So when you’re doing a performance versus an installation, how is that different for you?
With an installation I imagine the finished form and work towards that. With this I imagine the ideas and I bring it to the group, then allow everyone to morph and put something into it. So I don’t know what it’s going to end up being. I just come in with an idea and let it expand.
You taught in Japan for three years and I know you draw from many places like Japanese culture, African American history and Buddhism. How do you see them overlap in your works?
I think to some degree my work is autobiographical, even though it doesn’t readily look like it, and we are all products of our environment. I’ve lived in several different countries and those experiences have absorbed inside my creative circle, so when I make something I might be thinking of the angle of the hand on that Michelangelo piece I saw in Florence or I might be thinking of the smells or the way the temples looked outside of my place in Japan or the 20-hour desert ride in Ethiopia to get to the volcano.
Can you describe one moment that was really formative for you as an artist?
Back when I was at Morehouse College I had a teacher who introduced me to sculpture. He put me in a contest outside of school with MFA students. I was a freshman, I had just started sculpture like six months before, and I won second place. So basically, it was a very early introduction to becoming a professional artist. That same teacher knew I was interested in music and painting and all these things, and he told me, “You have to decide on one. You can’t do all of this.” And at that moment I was like, “You are absolutely fucking wrong. I’m going to do all that shit.” And well, that’s what I do. The last time I saw him he was like, “Thank god you didn’t listen to me.”
What was the sculpture of?
It was a steel disc that I made and polished until it was almost a mirror-type reflective surface. Hanging from it was a rusty old chain that went down to the ground into a square-stop piece of rusty steel. Then an old Georgia state flag—I was living in Atlanta—was wrapped up in this chain and had thatched tar on it. The Georgia state flag still had the confederate flag on it when I was there in college. This was contemporary at the time. So I desecrated the flag, I showed how outdated it was, and I won. They wouldn’t take a picture of the whole piece because it was too controversial. I had to stand in front of the piece the whole time like, “You can’t take a picture of me. You can’t take a picture of half of the piece. You have to take the whole piece or none of it.” So there were no pictures of it—only the mention in the paper that I won second place.
So you’ve been creating controversial work and starting dialogue since the get go.
I also saw that you collaborated with Hank Willis Thomas. His mom was one of my thesis advisors.
Oh really? We were just in South Africa last week with Deb.
What were you doing in South Africa?
The U.S. ambassador has a few of my works in his home so he invited me, two American artists and then two South African artists to do a small tour between Cape Town and Joburg [Johannesburg] talking to art universities and visiting townships.
And you’re also a professor at Columbia. Do you find any struggles between teaching and actively being an artist?
I usually get inspired by my students, not necessarily by their work, but by their processes, struggles and triumphs. But it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of psychic energy, so sometimes it can be hard to balance the two.
What’s a struggle that you have overcome as an artist?
Limitations that other people put on you. The categories that other people put you in. Knowing that your vision usually is not understood until many years after and not listening to a lot of shit that’s said about you. You have to build a filter and know what’s constructive and what’s bullshit.
How did you build that filter?
I’m really in tune with what I make. I feel that artists have a responsibility to know their shit and even when it’s somehow going out of control, it’s only because you’ve gotten to a certain level of mastery and then let it go out of control. It’s discipline.
Can you describe how you feel when you’re making work?
It’s literally tapping into a source and being plugged into and responsive to it. It’s otherworldly. I can only describe it as a force.
At what point in your life did you know you wanted to go into art?
Probably when I was 12 or 13. I was always into the art classes at school and then I started doing portraits and paintings of people. I saw the interest my classmates took in that and I was able to tell them about Sojourner Truth or Harriett Tubman or Marcus Garvey, which schools weren’t teaching at that time. So in some ways I was educating and I realized art had that power to do that. One of the goals of my work is still to expand people’s consciousness.
Going with goals, how would you define your philosophy toward art?
Follow that shit. Don’t think about it too much. Just do it.
I also wanted to ask about the pair of lips that’s a recurring symbol throughout all of your work. What is that?
I call it a Cheshire, like Cheshire cat, but it’s totally contextual. If I show it in Europe and call it Cheshire, everyone thinks Lewis Carroll. If I show the same piece in Virginia or Mississippi everyone thinks black face minstrelsy, and black face, big lips. I think it’s interesting how a symbol can be totally innocuous or totally loaded and fucked up and it just depends on the context. Context itself is almost a material. It’s a way of looking back at that symbol and seeing if there is a way to unload it from it’s weight in the past or if that past is still relevant and needs to be talked about.
And then if you had to define your goals with art in one or two sentences, what would you say?
I can say it in two words: mind expansion.