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 John Biggers: My America, The 1940s and 1950s -- Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings

January 22 - March 20, 2005


Known for his narrative murals and outstanding draftsmanship, John Biggers (1924-2001) dedicated his work to the depiction of the human condition, "showing the spirit of man struggling above the mundane, above the material, above suffering." Born in 1924 to Paul and Cora Biggers, John was the youngest of seven children, and grew up in segregated Gastonia, North Carolina. His early life was blanketed by the love and security of a large extended family, but also marked by the deaths of his sister Lillian (1927) and his father (1937), both from diabetes. After Paul Biggers's death, Cora became the family's sole supporter, and made the difficult decision to send her two youngestsons, John and James, away to Lincoln Academy to receive the best education possible. The principal at Lincoln, who had been a missionary in West Africa, instilled in his students a greater understanding of the value of African culture, which Biggers would carry with him throughout his career. (right: John Biggers, Coming Home from Work, 1944, oil on board, 40 x 32 inches, signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, New York)

In 1941, Biggers entered Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University), where he studied art under the guidance of Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian refugee who had been the director of Vienna's museum for African art before fleeing the Nazis. At Hampton, Biggers also met and befriended artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. In 1943, Biggers's mural Dying Soldier was featured in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, organized by Lowenfeld for the Museum of Modern Art. That same year, his studies at Hampton were interrupted when he was drafted into the United States Navy. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy, Biggers enrolled in 1946 at Pennsylvania State University to continue his studies with Lowenfeld, receiving his B.S. and M.S. degrees in 1948 and a Ph.D. in 1954.

In 1949, Biggers moved to Houston, Texas, where he chaired the nascent art department at Texas State University (later renamed Texas Southern University), and remained a vital member of the faculty until his retirement in 1983. In the 1950s, Biggers won purchase prizes from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and from the Dallas Museum of Art, but his victories were marred by both museums' segregationist policies, which prevented the young African-American artist from attending the receptions at which a white artist would have been celebrated. In 1957, Biggers won a UNESCO fellowship and became among the first black American artists to travel to Africa. His trip to West Africa, which Biggers has described as "a positive shock" and as "the most significant of my life's experiences," had a profound impact on his world view that went even beyond the publication of his award-winning illustrated book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa (1962).

Over the course of his career, Biggers moved from creating works that were overtly critical of racial and economic injustice, such as Victim of the City Streets #2 (1946) and The Garbage Man (1944), to more allegorical works like Birth from the Sea (1964) and Shotguns: Third Ward (1987), in which African and African-American women function as solid and graceful allegories of creativity, life, hope and the survival of a community and culture. The latter work features another of Biggers's recurring symbols, the shotgun house, a style of housing found in southern black ghettoes (as well as other areas of the South), which was also used by other artists such as Jacob Lawrence to express the importance of social ties essential to black American cultural life.

Whether sketching an African woman dancing or painting one of his twenty-seven public murals, Biggers drew inspiration from African art and culture, from the injustices of a segregated United States, from the stoic women of his own family and from the heroism of everyday survival.

Biggers's work continually evolved over five decades, and in 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Hampton University Art Museum organized his first comprehensive retrospective, exposing the depth of his rich legacy. In January of 2001, John Biggers died, leaving behind a body of work that as Maya Angelou stated, "leads us through his expressions into the discovery of ourselves at our most intimate level." (right: John Biggers, Old Couple (aka "Home Sweet Home"), 1946, oil on board, 40 x 32 inches, signed and dated. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, New York)

John Biggers: My America, The 1940s and 1950s - Paintings, Sculpture & Drawings was organized by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, New York. The exhibition is on view at NOMA January 22 through March 20, 2005, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, which is available in the Museum Shop.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy

Visionary artist Leon Kennedy discusses painter John Biggers 4 min - Sep 10, 2007.

James Biggers and Friends Opening Remarks1 min - Feb 10, 2008 - Google Video says: "A collection of African American art works was displayed at Gaston College in Dallas, NC. during the month of January and February 2008. James Biggers invited artists from South and North Carolina to participate in a show entitled "James Biggers and Friends". Mr. James Biggers, is the nephew of the late Dr. John Biggers and an instructor at the college. To learn more about the show and John Biggers go to: www.gastoncollegeafricanamericanart.blogspot.com."

and this VHS/DVD video:

John Biggers' Hampton Murals: Stories of Illumination and Growth from Hampton Roads Public Broadcasting, produced by Cinebar Productions, was well received, garnering an Emmy nomination and winning the Gold Apple at the National Educational Film and Video Festival. 29 minutes 1992 copyright Hampton University Museum. "John Biggers, artist, educator, and former Hampton University student, completed a 2-panel mural for his alma mater in 1992, and it now hangs in the new campus library as an inspiration to the university community. This video documents the creative process involved and, through interviews with Biggers, explains the multitude of images depicted. The left side of the mural, the House of the Turtle , conveys historical elements while the Treehouse on the right is a prayer for the future of African-Americans. Viewed on one level as a story, the mural also becomes a metaphor for transition and growth. Biggers, in his use of recurring symbols based in African art and lore, creates complex layers of meaning as an explanation of the "everchanging dance of life." (Quote from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts )

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