LA artist Sanford Biggers uses quilts to decode American history

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In the new art exhibition “Codeswitch” at the California African American Museum, LA native Sanford Biggers takes antique quilts from pre-1900 and adds to their rich historical timelines.

“He started working with these quilts in 2009,” says Lindsay Preston Zappas, founder and editor-in-chief at Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles. “He was researching the underground railroad, and he made two quilt works that showed maps and safe houses. 

The quilts referenced a theory that people along the underground railroad shared information in code through quilts that were hanging in safe houses. 

“This theory has never been proven, but the story itself has a lot of power to it, and something that Biggers is really fascinated by,” says Preston Zappas. “This idea of this craft that's so embedded in American history being used to subvert that history and lead to freedom.”

Sanford Biggers, “Bonsai,” 2016. Antique quilt, assorted textiles, spray paint, oil stick, tar, 69 x 93 in. © Sanford Biggers and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. Photo: Object Studies.

Biggers adds his own layers of code directly onto the quilts by cutting them, painting on them, and patchworking them together. He adds present-day and personal influences like jazz, graffiti, Buddhism, and pop culture.

Based in New York but born in LA, Biggers is excited to show at CAAM because he remembers visiting the museum as a child and being introduced to new artists for the first time.

Sanford Biggers, “Harlem Blue,” 2013. Antique quilt, assorted textile, acrylic, spray paint, 88 x 88 in. © Sanford Biggers