Thursday April 19, 2012

When they were children, John Biggers and his brothers and sisters re-created their whole town in clay underneath their house -- streets, and houses with moss for lawns, mules and wagons and cars, and two seven-story skyscrapers. (atlantis.coe.uh.edu)

Years later, he would paint shimmering cities in air.

One of them floats above a sunburst of organ pipes in his cousin’s exhibit at Mass MoCA. Sanford Biggers’ "The Cartographer’s Conundrum" leads visitors down a long gallery, past tumbled pianos and mirror stars, to a fleet of church pews launching into the air. And all the way through, the bright image set high at the top of the far wall like a rose window is John Biggers’ mural, "The Quilting Party."

I didn’t understand, until I’d climbed a set of stairs to stand in front of the mural, what I was walking toward. Women dance barefoot in bright dresses and kerchiefs. Animals and objects are patterned in oblongs, like cotton cloth from a nursery toy or moonlight through leaves. Onion domes form in the sky and figures dart in the heavens. A marimba arches in the center like an altar.

As a child, John Biggers helped his mother with laundry tubs and washboards. These women form a circle of power. Familiar spirits gather around them. A kaleidoscopic shape gleams, as though a woman kneeling in a blue robe, looking in the same direction as the painter and with the soles of her feet showing, has become reflected in a hexagonal crystal.


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Biggers called her the morning star and the queen of heaven.

I like that name for the morning star. Where are the stories that make the morning star a women, and brightest in the sky?

All the time, as I gazed at the mural, a woman’s voice sang, low and strong, with a swell of sound like the sea.

To reach the mural, I walked past the dissolving nave with the rayed-out organ and the pews with lift-off, and into a dark space where screens set at a slight angle showed the same film sequence -- sometimes in mirror image.

It is a film of contrasts and possibilities. The hero -- played by Ricardo Camillo, a Brazilian-born choreographer, stuntman, clown and DJ -- may at the same time sit alone in a blue-lit empty night club and dance on the stage to applause.

Maybe he is moving between alternate universes. Sanford Biggers refers to a school of artwork, music and writing called Afrofuturism -- blending elements of science fiction, magic realism, myth and technology.

It sounds like way to re-shape the world when the shape of it doesn’t fit.

Biggers’ hero in his silver high-heeled boots brings life to the streets when he walks through them. He reveals invisible barriers and challenges them -- like ASCO, the Los Angeles performance artists in their retrospective at WCMA, turning highway medians into a stage, inventing film stills from imagined award-winning films and animating graveyards.

I wish I could ask Sanford Biggers -- what is the cartographer’s conundrum?

His film is another city map -- houses, streets and surf, and sunlight fishing boats off shore in Sao Paolo. What would he map that he feels he can’t? A child making a town out of clay can build a world in any shape he wants to. And a painter or a filmmaker who can hold on to that child’s playfulness, alongside adult pain, can transform the world he lives in.

Sanford Biggers’’ film has a powerful yearning in it, past the edges of things.

And coming after it, John Biggers’ mural is far more than a protest. He has painted what he loves and wants the world to be. That is hard to do, when the world you live in looks very different. But seeing it can be the first step to making it happen. If you know how a song sounds, you can play it.

John Biggers has painted a vision of joyful, unquestioned power -- of women leaping together under the open sky and marimba music rushing like rain on a summer night.