Modern Griots Recap: Sanford Biggers and Saul Williams in Conversation

Sanford Biggers’ Ghetto Bird Tunic

Brooklyn Museum assistant curator Rujeko Hockley moderated a conversation at the Studio Museum last week with artists Sanford Biggers and Saul Williams and their relationship to afrofuturism. Here are some notes from the conversation:

*Rujeko thinks of Afrofuturism as a process rather than a label, using it as a label may be too restrictive. But its potential lies in its expansiveness and ability to push boundaries.

*Saul Williams views it as useful for congregating art and artists and that it helps with present pressing circumstances, but is also wary of the label becoming restrictive because others will see that name and think its not for them. He claims that we have always been futuristic and fantastical, before descriptors like Afro or African, from the Dogon finding the stars to bebop to Jimi Hendrix to the art in Haiti to him using his imagination while staring at the shadows at night as a kid. The oratorical dreamscapes of our ancestors; the ritual flights of escape through the drum beat. Those captured and enslaved in the hull of the ship must have had the wildest imaginations. “Our compacted experience has us shitting diamonds.”

*Sanford Biggers does not want to define it and relates the term to sankofa and a Japanese word with a similar meaning. For him, history is malleable material for art that can be used for liberation and oppression.

Their Artworks’ relationship to Afrofuturism

*Williams’ discussed his work The Dead MC Scrolls, which plays with legacy and the mystery of the past that is still present with us and inspiring us at the same time. Currently, he is working on Martyr Loser King, in collaboration with comic artist Ronald Wimberly, a project that will be a musical play and graphic novel about an anonymous hacker in Africa who is using E-waste, like colton, to rebuild computers and create his own village. The name is based on a foreign accented pronunciation of Martin Luther King’s name and with the cover that Williams previewed for us, a hand with its middle finger up, he expects it provoke and stir conversation. The hacker is like a virtual graffiti artist, rebelling against the industry of colton, like the its the new form of cotton.

*Biggers’ thinks of his coded quilts as a form of communication and that his work is part of the historical debates about whether quilts were used as signs for the Underground Railroad. He sees it as taking this piece of Americana and reconstructing it, defacing it and experimenting with it like a graffiti artist. His adding of the qrc code to the quilt, which he claims is already “Jurassic” technology, is another way of playing with code, time and myth.How do we communicate without the advanced technology that we have? On a trip in Lalibela, Ethiopia, he came across a family who knew about all the news in another village and they were able to communicate in the middle of what seemed like nowhere without any of the technology we have here.

Another one of his artworks, the ghetto bird tunic is another form of myth-making for him. The ghetto bird is a name used in California for the helicopters that circle around the ghetto, and the purpose of the tunic is for it to be part of a ritual dance where the participant wears it and dances around; if he is not seen by the “ghetto bird,” he becomes a man. Various artists have worn the tunic, including Williams, and so he sees it as a “power object,” its purpose is to see the travel of energy, to see where it lands and see its continued legacy.

Biggers’ Moonmedicin


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