TED2016

Sanford Biggers: An artist's unflinching look at racial violence

Filmed:

Conceptual artist and TED Fellow Sanford Biggers uses painting, sculpture, video and performance to spark challenging conversations about the history and trauma of black America. Join him as he details two compelling works and shares the motivation behind his art. "Only through more thoughtful dialogue about history and race can we evolve as individuals and society," Biggers says.

- Conceptual artist
Sanford Biggers creates art that upends traditional narratives about topics ranging from hip hop to Buddhism to American history. Full bio

As a conceptual artist,
00:12
I'm constantly looking for creative ways
to spark challenging conversations.
00:14
I do this though painting, sculpture,
video and performance.
00:18
But regardless of the format,
00:22
two of my favorite materials
are history and dialogue.
00:23
In 2007, I created "Lotus,"
00:27
a seven-and-a-half-foot diameter,
00:30
600-pound glass depiction
of a lotus blossom.
00:31
In Buddhism, the lotus is a symbol
for transcendence
00:35
and for purity of mind and spirit.
00:39
But a closer look at this lotus
00:41
reveals each petal
to be the cross-section of a slave ship.
00:44
This iconic diagram was taken
from a British slaving manual
00:47
and later used by abolitionists to show
the atrocities of slavery.
00:51
In America, we don't like
to talk about slavery,
00:55
nor do we look at it as a global industry.
00:58
But by using this Buddhist symbol,
01:01
I hope to universalize and transcend
01:02
the history and trauma of black America
01:05
and encourage discussions
about our shared past.
01:07
To create "Lotus,"
we carved over 6,000 figures.
01:11
And this later led to a commission
by the City of New York
01:16
to create a 28-foot version in steel
01:19
as a permanent installation
at the Eagle Academy for Young Men,
01:21
a school for black and latino students,
01:24
the two groups most affected
by this history.
01:26
The same two groups are very affected
by a more recent phenomenon,
01:30
but let me digress.
01:33
I've been collecting
wooden African figures
01:35
from tourist shops and flea markets
around the world.
01:37
The authenticity and origin
of them is completely debatable,
01:40
but people believe these
to be imbued with power,
01:43
or even magic.
01:46
Only recently have I figured out
how to use this in my own work.
01:47
(Gun shots)
01:51
Since 2012, the world has witnessed
the killings of Trayvon Martin,
02:05
Michael Brown, Eric Garner,
Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice
02:09
and literally countless other
unarmed black citizens
02:13
at the hands of the police,
02:16
who frequently walk away
with no punishment at all.
02:17
In consideration of these victims
02:20
and the several times that even I,
02:22
a law-abiding, Ivy League professor,
02:24
have been targeted and harassed
at gunpoint by the police.
02:26
I created this body of work
simply entitled "BAM."
02:30
It was important to erase
the identity of each of these figures,
02:36
to make them all look the same
and easier to disregard.
02:39
To do this, I dip them in a thick,
brown wax
02:43
before taking them to a shooting range
02:45
where I re-sculpted them using bullets.
02:47
And it was fun,
02:50
playing with big guns and
high-speed video cameras.
02:52
But my reverence for these figures
kept me from actually pulling the trigger,
02:54
somehow feeling as if I would
be shooting myself.
02:58
Finally, my cameraman, Raul,
fired the shots.
03:01
I then took the fragments of these
03:06
and created molds,
and cast them first in wax,
03:08
and finally in bronze
like the image you see here,
03:12
which bears the marks
of its violent creation
03:15
like battle wounds or scars.
03:17
When I showed this work recently in Miami,
03:20
a woman told me she felt
every gun shot to her soul.
03:22
But she also felt that these artworks
03:25
memorialized the victims of these killings
03:27
as well as other victims of
racial violence throughout US history.
03:29
But "Lotus" and "BAM" are larger
than just US history.
03:33
While showing in Berlin last year,
03:36
a philosophy student asked me
what prompted these recent killings.
03:38
I showed him a photo
of a lynching postcard
03:42
from the early 1900s
03:44
and reminded him that these killings
have been going on for over 500 years.
03:46
But it's only through questions like his
03:51
and more thoughtful dialogue
about history and race
03:53
can we evolve as individuals and society.
03:56
I hope my artwork creates a safe space
03:59
for this type of honest exchange
04:02
and an opportunity for people
to engage one another
04:04
in real and necessary conversation.
04:07
Thank you.
04:10
(Applause)
04:11

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About the Speaker:

Sanford Biggers - Conceptual artist
Sanford Biggers creates art that upends traditional narratives about topics ranging from hip hop to Buddhism to American history.

Why you should listen

An LA native working in NYC, Sanford Biggers creates artworks that integrate film, video, installation, sculpture, drawing, original music and performance. He intentionally complicates issues such as hip hop, Buddhism, politics, identity and art history in order to offer new perspectives and associations for established symbols. Through a multi-disciplinary formal process and a syncretic creative approach, he makes works that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are conceptual.

The significance of Biggers' work within contemporary society has been celebrated through solo exhibitions both nationally and internationally, most recently at the Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center and Mass MoCA. He has participated in prestigious residencies and fellowships including: Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany; Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland; Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, California; ARCUS Project Foundation, Ibaraki, Japan; and the Art in General/ Trafo Gallery Eastern European Exchange in Budapest, Hungary. He has been a fellow of the Creative Time Global Residency, the Socrates Sculpture Park Residency, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views AIR Program, the Eyebeam Atelier Teaching Residency, the Studio Museum AIR Program, the P.S. 1 International Studio Program and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture residency.

Biggers' installations, videos and performances have appeared in venues worldwide including Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, the Whitney Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York and the Yerba Bue a Center for the Arts in San Francisco, as well as institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland and Russia. The artist's works have been included in notable exhibitions such as: Prospect 1 New Orleans Biennial, Illuminations at the Tate Modern, Performa 07 in NY, the Whitney Biennial and Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem. His works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Bronx Museum.

Biggers has won awards including: the American Academy in Berlin Prize, Greenfield Prize, New York City Art Teachers Association Artist-of-the-Year, Creative Time Travel Grant, Creative Capital Project Grant, New York Percent for the Arts Commission, Art Matters Grant, New York Foundation for the Arts Award, the Lambent Fellowship in the Arts, the Pennies From Heaven/ New York Community Trust Award, Tanne Foundation Award and Rema Hort Mann Foundation Award Grant.

Biggers is Assistant Professor at Columbia University's Visual Arts program and a board member of Sculpture Center, Soho House and the CUE Foundation. He has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Sculpture and Expanded Media program and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University's VES Department in 2009.