Cracking Codes With Sanford Biggers | #schoolshooting

When Mr. Biggers showed “BAM (for Michael)” in St. Louis in 2018, he met first with Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and received her blessing. He likened the works to power figures, like the Congolese nkisi: “The action of shooting them, dipping them in wax, the whole protracted process, is a way of giving them power — charging them,” he said.

Both the method and the naming draw occasional pushback from visitors to his exhibitions, but, he said, “the only way to communicate this type of pain is to do something like this, that will make people get pissed off at you.” When the Legacy Museum at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Ala., acquired “BAM (For Michael),” he felt validated.

It’s his own exhaustion that has caused him to pause the “BAM” series, and he is no longer watching the death videos, for now. “I can’t deal with that today. It’s overload,” he said. “There’s a point where there’s no longer any detachment from these things happening.”

The quilts, however, continue. Their softness is their strength. Their transmittal attests to survival; whether they broadcast freedom codes during the Underground Railroad or not, an artist can inscribe them now with salutary information for today.

On the studio floor, Mr. Biggers spread two untouched vintage quilts, both red, white and blue, but in clashing patterns — one a grid of small squares split in triangles, the other building out from the center like a kaleidoscope image. He described a possible tall piece combining the two, with a totemic feel.

Lately, he said, has been working mostly by subtraction, cutting sections from quilts. “To create two things with red, white and blue, and then take something from it, is the gesture,” he said. “Working through the idea of the demise of our democracy.”

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