Timothy Makepeace, JWST Vertical Primary Mirror, 2017, charcoal and pastel on paper, 49 x 49 inches.


A Visionary Agenda—in Quilts, Mars, and Pound Cake

Sanford Biggers, The Talk, 2016. Antique quilt, fabric, tar, and glitter, 80 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Artists and poets have unique ways to communicate salient truths about the human experience. In “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” poet Nikki Giovanni conjures imagery that, on the surface, seems whimsical—space travel to Mars accompanied by the songs of Billie Holiday and slices of lemon pound cake. Yet her vivid language reminds us that we can learn from the past to imagine how we might construct our shared destiny on this planet, and on others. In one sense, her aim is practical: space exploration (and indeed all exploration) benefits from diverse perspectives. But on a metaphorical level, Giovanni expansively connects the past experiences of Black Americans to the future, which is “ours to take.” In the telling, she creates entirely new narratives of what interplanetary inclusivity could mean.

As with Giovanni’s poem, the artist Sanford Biggers revisits an American tradition of quilting and storytelling to create an imaginative bridge between the past and the future. In his work, the lives of Black Americans are an evolving and complex story with shifting meanings. Inspired by the idea that quilts may have provided coded information to African Americans navigating the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, Biggers adds new layers of information and meaning to the antique quilts. His work suggests that lessons learned through one of the darkest moments in American history can be reimagined, and, as in Giovanni’s poem, layered into a visionary agenda that embraces innovation and joy.

Sanford Biggers, Reconstruction, 2019.
Sanford Biggers, Reconstruction, 2019. Antique quilt, birch plywood, gold leaf, 38 x 72 x 19 inches. © Sanford Biggers and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo: RCH Photography.

Over the last two decades, Biggers has been developing a singular body of work informed by African American history and traditions. Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch, the first survey of the artist’s quilt-based works, features nearly 50 pieces that seamlessly weave together references to contemporary art, urban culture, sacred geometry, the body, and American symbolism. The exhibition’s title refers both to the artist’s quilt series, known as the Codex series, and to the idea of code-switching, or shifting from one linguistic code to another depending on social situation.

Codeswitch is on display at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles from July 28, 2021, through January 23, 2022.

Text by J. D. Talasek

Sanford Biggers Chorus for Paul Mooney, 2017.
Antique quilt, assorted textiles, acrylic, spray paint, 76 x 76 inches.
© Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.
Sanford Biggers, "Bonsai" (2016)
Sanford Biggers, Bonsai, 2016. Antique quilt, assorted textiles, spray paint, oil stick, tar, 69 x 93 inches. © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. Photo: Object Studies.

Images of works by Sanford Biggers courtesy of the California African American Museum.

Cite this Article

Biggers, Sanford. “Codeswitch.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 1 (Fall 2021): 34–39.

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2021