The past is easily packed up, discarded and forgotten. With no past, there is no recollection of pain, but neither is there a memory of strength, a continuation of beauty. In Selah, Sanford Biggers’ current show at Marianne Boesky Gallery, antique textiles and hand-hewn African sculptures combine with the cold veneer of the video screen to create an assemblage that rethinks what is often lost to time. Biggers splices scraps of quilts—some more than 100 years old—into collages he embellishes with paint or cut out figures then hangs them on the wall, sometimes in vintage frames. Slow motion clips of an African mask and a seated warrior statue shot by a gun repeat on a stack of monitors placed in a corner in Infinite Tabernacle (2017). Elsewhere in the gallery, the same mask and the statue have been recast in bronze (BAM (for Jordan) 2017 and BAM (Seated Warrior) 2017), their dignity restored despite their bullet holes.
“Central to the theme of this exhibition,” Biggers states in his press statement, “is the potential of objects to transform our experience and understanding of the human condition. This includes a cycle of life and death, and within it a relationship between the living and the dead.” Anonymous artisans who stitched and carved are channeled into Biggers’ pieces, which weave stories of the African diaspora in the United States with contemporary considerations of racial profiling and violence.
In the center of the gallery, a commanding figure stands with arms raised to the sky. Selah (2017), the work after which the show was named, is covered in remnants of quilts. The figure’s leg and part of an arm are missing, presumably shot away. A hollow center reveals a lining of sequins. The figure is homespun and humble on the exterior, but glimmering like a snakeskin within. Selah, a word found in the Hebrew Bible, is thought to mean either an exclamation or silence. Bigger’s use of the word mirrors the possibility of opposites found in the sculpture—the pose may reveal exuberance, but it also echoes the helplessness hands raised in the air, pleading: Don’t shoot.
Nearby, in Overstood (2017), a black sequin shadow stretches away from four small statues grouped together on the floor. Created by the artist as an evocation of African iconography, the figures are featureless silhouettes with a dull tar-like finish. The shadow lengthens and rises onto the wall behind them, transforming into an image of four Black Panthers, their faces a shimmering mosaic of copper and gold spangles. The Panthers’ shadow looms spectral, a projection of Black Power and the idealism of the 1960s, which reverberates today in chants and protests of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a small room at the back of the gallery, a golden figure rises out of a nest of quilts bunched on the floor. BAM(Seated Warrior) (2017) resurrects the figure in the video—now cast in bronze and covered with a golden patina—as an icon in the center of what feels like a small temple. The warrior stands above eye level, its head floating atop an elongated neck, its chin thrust forward, proudly scrutinizing all who stand beneath it. On the wall behind it, the warrior’s image repeats in a piece of cut calico stitched onto a background of black- and dun-colored denim. A charcoal shadow underscores the cutout, neatly mirroring the Panthers’—the shadows of those who came before. This echoing of images—from sculpture to quilt, and from quilt to video clip—runs throughout the show. Biggers conjures an ancestry often eclipsed by struggle and trauma through silhouettes and shapes; his tender repurposing of quilts made by unknown hands brings memories of comfort and nurturance to work that also stares unflinchingly at violent undoings. Through repetition and contradiction, Biggers reinvents time as something that wraps the past around the present, reminding his audience that our history follows us wherever we go.