Alum Sanford Biggers Disrupts and Deciphers Quilted Heirlooms

Photo of Sanford Biggers
Photo courtesy of Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

For more than a decade, Sanford Biggers (MFA 1999) has been working with antique quilts—boldly painting, cutting, and reimagining their design and imagery. The New York Times recently paid a socially distant visit to the visual artist’s Harlem home studio to decipher the hidden codes woven into his work.

Biggers quilt-based pieces, which he calls “material storytelling,” shed light on the Black experience, American violence, Buddhism, and art history. His first works in 2009, inspired by a theory about the role of quilts in the Underground Railroad, featured transposed locations of historical safe houses depicted like stars on a constellation. “They’re portals,” Biggers explained. “I consider them between painting, drawing and sculpture, and a repository of memory”

Biggers’s interest in hidden messages spans across his collection—one work-in-progress includes an embedded, scannable QR code that plays music by Biggers’ multimedia concept band; however, he values process over product. “I don’t have a vision of what I want to put on the quilt and then hammer it in,” he said. “I sit with these quilts for months or years before I can make a single mark. And then it’s led by what the material is going to give back.”

This fall, Biggers’ will show his quilt-based pieces in Codeswitch, an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and Soft Truths at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Manhattan.