Sanford Biggers (b. 1970) builds fantastical composite art objects, or invents images of them, to explore the hybrid ideas born out of encounters between different cultures. The woodcut Afropick was influenced by two traditions familiar to Biggers: the graphic expression of African American political identity and Japanese printmaking. Examples of African combs and photographs by the groundbreaking African American artist Gordon Parks (1912–2006), all from the permanent collection at the Cantor Arts Center, illuminate some the print’s complex references to the body and Black visual culture.
Biggers’s hair pick is a biomorphic tool topped by a fist clenched in a Black Power salute. This gesture of defiance has been used around the world since antiquity, but in the 1960s it became intimately associated with the civil rights movement. Black American athletes Tommie Smith (b. 1944) and John Carlos (b. 1945) most famously raised their fists to protest global racial and economic injustices while accepting their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Their dissent recontextualized the fist as a bridge between the concerns of the Black Freedom struggle and those of other marginalized communities. Biggers’s use of this symbol in 2005 speaks to its enduring legibility in the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America.
The lower half of Biggers’s Afropick extends downward into dangling, organic tendrils. They function as the tines of the pick, but also strongly resemble tree roots or locked hair, another popular “natural” hairstyle. The roots—or origins—of this very personal implement are represented by examples of African combs, each with unique elements that echo Biggers’s design. Parks’s photographs from the 1960s, which are also new additions to the Cantor’s collection, give context to the ways in which Biggers’s print speaks to the political significance of the body, natural Afro hairstyles, or loose, curly, kinky hair.
Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, Ph.D., Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator, and Director of the Curatorial Fellowship Program
This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center. We gratefully acknowledge support from The Clumeck Endowment Fund.