Firing guns can pop, bang and ping. A machine gun can rat-a-tat-tat. A rifle report can crack.
And we sometimes hear one violently definitive word to describe the sound of a whizzing bullet when it finally hits its oh-so vulnerable target, a person who may be running, begging for mercy, or sometimes saying nothing at all. BAM.
“BAM” is the title of a series of powerful works created by New York-based artist Sanford Biggers, on view at Tufts Aidekman Arts Center beginning Oct. 8. Well-known for a robust art practice confronting cultural and political narratives, Biggers finds an entirely new way to talk about the steady drumbeat of police shootings of unarmed African Americans in this small show of just 10 pieces. This series is at once evocative, visceral, poetic and oddly optimistic, given the circumstances, hinting at a potential ability, now or at some future date, to transcend flagrant injustices. (The Washington Post has kept a running tally of police shootings since Ferguson, and as of the writing of this piece, at least 143 African Americans have been shot and killed by law enforcement in 2019 alone.)
When Biggers decided to embark on the project, he says, “I was doing a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. I would wake up and check my news feed to check what was going on in the States, and repeatedly, I started seeing footage of black people being killed by the police… One morning, I just got so frustrated and so upset and so distraught over it all that I decided to embark on this project.”
Biggers had long collected African figures, masks and sculptures, which he used as models for his work. But, he says, “something about the violence and the shock and the injustice of it all made me feel that the only way to really communicate that was to start using the pieces I'd been collecting.”
He dipped the wooden figures in wax to remove their unique features and took his beloved sculptures to a shooting range where he “sculpted them ballistically” using different firearms of different calibers. (For the record, Biggers didn’t pull the trigger himself. He asked an assistant to do it.) The first two pieces to come out of the process were dedicated to specific shooting victims in the news at the time. Later, as shootings continued at a steady clip, the pieces became more generally symbolic of police violence against blacks.
By using spiritual or religious figures originally sculpted to commemorate an important event or as a talisman to ward off disease or bring a good harvest, Biggers symbolically performs a ritual magic of his own. He resuscitates the spirits of those black victims who have perished at the wrong end of a police officer’s pistol, allowing the pieces to transmute into a kind of avatar for the deceased. In some sense, the broken figures have been recharged and empowered by their disfigurement.
After his “ballistic sculpting,” he casts the figures riddled with holes and missing limbs into bronze, which works on two levels. Not only does it allow the objects to assume a place alongside the bronze statues that traditionally memorialize important people and events, but it also symbolically suggests that the damaged figures, made initially out of more pliable wood, have, in the end, become stronger for their suffering and Biggers’ artistic alchemy.
There is “BAM (for Michael)” and “BAM (for Terence),” both made in 2016, memorializing Michael Brown, killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in 2014, and Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black man shot and killed by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2016. There is also “BAM (for Jordan)” and “BAM (for Sandra),” honoring Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old shot and killed by Texas police in 2017 when he attempted to drive away, and Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail in 2015 after being arrested for failing to signal a lane change.
While some pieces refer to specific victims, others stand in as a more general tribute. “Seated Warrior” is a bronze piece of a damaged Senufo sculpture once used for divination in the Côte d’Ivoire. The figure sits as a symbol of power for those who have died, as well as those who feel under threat every time a police car pulls them over.
“It alludes to the idea of these being warriors,” says Biggers.
In addition to the statues, the exhibit includes three antique quilts. Two bear the images of “Seated Warrior,” only in this rendition, the figure is presented in floral or pink sequins. Biggers says he chose quilts as a canvas because of a legend that quilts functioned as a coded signal for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. Perhaps these quilts signal a safe passage ahead? Or are they a warning?
There is also video in the show. “Infinite Tabernacle” consists of five monitors propped on their sides, lying gently on a throw rug, like an impromptu home shrine. The image playing on the screens shows the shooting of the African sculptures but with one difference from real life. In the video, we witness the figures being riddled with bullets, but we also see the bullet reverse course. The figure comes back together again and all is made whole.
“This notion of transcending the physical corporeal existence to a higher spiritual plane is also somehow in those objects,” says Biggers. “So yes, they're wounded, they're shot, they’re damaged but they’re not dead. They're sort of resurrected, in a sense, and fortified.”
The idea of transcendence and a deeper cosmic thread coursing through all life has long interwoven itself through Biggers’ work. Biggers, who in the past has taught art at Harvard and Columbia University, lived in Japan for three years and was deeply influenced by Buddhist ideas and philosophies. Some of his pieces reflect this interest, including a series that he began in 2000 of traditional sand-drawn Buddhist and Hindu mandalas reimagined as a hip-hop dance floor, as well as another older work, “Lotus,” which appears to be a beautiful round white lotus blossom etched on a circular pane of glass until you get close enough to see that the petals are actually the hull of slave ships packed with human cargo. In one simple image, Biggers juxtaposes the horrors of slavery with a Buddhist symbol of purity of body, speech and mind. Typical of Biggers’ work, it is multi-layered, spiritual and otherworldly while rooted in the black experience.
“That's something that's always been in my work,” he says. “Everything was really deeply about ritual, meditation, healing, transcendence, and perspective of how humans exist within the larger cosmological context.”
And to this end, the BAM series fits neatly within Biggers’ oeuvre.
“The BAM series, I think, are really beautiful but really horrific,” he says. “And that is the sort of tension that I like my work to have, something very compelling and seductive but at the same time something very hard and almost disturbing…If you as a viewer are willing to go through that experience, there is a resolve and there is a sense of transcendence that I'm aiming for.”
“Sanford Biggers” is on view at Tufts Aidekman Arts Center Oct. 8 through Dec. 15. An artist talk and reception will be held Oct. 16 at 7 p.m.