A new exhibition at the Bronx Museum brings together over 50 quilt-based works by artist Sanford Biggers, who layers painting, collage, and sculpture onto antique quilts in his Codex series, engaging the tradition of African American quiltmaking with contemporary culture and symbolism. Biggers was inspired by stories that posited that, during the 19th century, quilts served as secret signposts along the Underground Railroad.
The US artist Sanford Biggers began producing paintings and sculptures embedded with antique quilts more than a decade ago. He was intrigued by the “system of hidden languages” in quilts that he saw in an exhibition at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The church was the first black-owned piece of real estate in the US and also served as a hub for the Underground Railroad, the secret network used by African Americans to escape slave states. The quilts, which were used as signposts for those enslaved to flee to free states, presented a concept “so poetic” that the artist “began to perceive [the abolitionist] Harriet Tubman as an astronaut, and these quilts as a codex of hidden maps, charts or messages”, he says.
The exhibition Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch at the Bronx Museum in New York will be the largest retrospective of the artist’s quilt-based works, comprising more than 60 pieces that aim to “create a transgenerational conversation chronicling aspects of America”, he says. The works, which the artist calls the Codex series, also refer to the “phenomenon of code-switching as a navigational survival technique”. (Code-switching is the act of alternating languages or how you speak during the same conversation.) “This is something that many of us do as minorities, women and people of colour,” Biggers says.