Sanford Biggers charts progress of Afrofuturism at MASS MoCA

“The Cartographer’s Conundrum” presents us with a wasteland of postmodern iconography: Splayed across this vast gallery in MASS MoCA are fractured stars, overturned pianos and deconstructed tubas.

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Sanford Biggers’ display at MASS MoCA propels African American art into a potential future.

The green and blue floor tiles, based on the shape of interlocking six-sided cubes, are supposed to play on our perceptions of two-dimensional versus three-dimensional forms. However, they are more reminiscent of rubber flooring installed in a child’s playroom to prevent Lego-induced injuries. What, after all, is the cartographer’s conundrum? Although this is the title of the exhibition, the work itself does very little to point to a possible answer – or to tell us what the question was in the first place. In his installation, Sanford Biggers follows the oeuvre of John Biggers, the social realist mural painter whose artwork was profoundly impacted by his 1957 UNESCO fellowship to Africa. It is this Odyssean journey that John Biggers charts from America to Africa and back again. This mapping, according to curator Denise Markonish, is the cartographer’s conundrum.

Although never made explicit, the central problem is that of the map itself: a two-dimensional static representation of space and time, subverting charted paths and official routes. For African Americans, whose history has been deliberately erased and elided, flung to far corners of the earth, Afrofuturism appropriates the language of science fiction to imagine possible futures. John Biggers’ “Quilting Party” (1980-81), a facsimile of which hangs in the upper mezzanine, depicts a vast cosmology centered on the “morning star.” Quiltmaking has a long history in African-American culture: During the time of the Underground Railroad, it is believed that quilts were used to convey coded information about safe escape routes to slaves heading north. In this exhibition, John Biggers’ quilt hangs above Sanford Biggers’ culminating installation like a fantastical triptych to the latter’s re-imagined church altar. Is this, then, a possible solution to the cartographer’s conundrum? An alternative system of signs to be taken up when traditional maps can no longer point us to the safest paths, the trusted routes?

Sanford Biggers’ re-imagined church altar is a piano turned on its side, surrounded by more defunct instruments and more broken star-shaped mirrors. Another piano and an aray of floating brass instruments are suspended above this mass. The oversized pipes of a church organ are thrust into the overturned piano like the detritus of a cosmic clash of sound. In front of the altar stand rows of ascending pews. Instead of the traditional dark wood, the last few pews are made with neon-colored acetate in a funked-up take on Sunday worship. Sanford Biggers’ sermon takes the traditional moralizing of the church and replaces it with a barrage of signs and symbols, neon and glass. Instruments and mirrors repeat throughout the installation but point us nowhere.

The best part of the exhibition is Sanford Biggers’ video “Shake.” Ricardo Camillo, the Brazilian-born, Berlin-based DJ and choreographer, goes on an epic journey from Sao Paolo to the ocean, where he emerges as a silver-skinned, platform boots-wearing mythological figure. “Shake” offers us a hint of a narrative without being subordinated by one, and makes use of semiotics without being totally fragmented by it. Central to the video is a pair of smiling red lips with blindingly white teeth; a grinning mouth that points to Rocky Horror, the Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland and the exaggerated masks of black minstrelsy. In one scene, Camillo shoplifts a red-and-gold threaded veil from a casket store, incorporating it into his later costume. This, Sanford Biggers seems to say, is essential to the nature of performance: the resurrection of ghosts and the wearing of veils. The message is that identity is alternately formed and dissolved.

MASS MoCA Curator Denise Markonish asserts that, like the character in “Shake,” visitors to the exhibition are on a cosmic journey: “We begin as mere mortals and then gather clues that hint at an alternate universe. Before long, the stars and geometric patterns become part of us.” For all of its wonder and spectacle, Sanford Biggers’ installation also points to a darker reality that I think is not sufficiently addressed. As Mark Dery writes in his 1995 essay “Black to the Future” (which coined the term Afrofuturism), the street has always found its own use for things. Quoting Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he reminds us that African Americans have always been masters of the figurative – saying one thing to mean another has been essential to black survival in an oppressive culture. Performance and identity transformation are not just play for the sake of play – it is the essence of preservation.