Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch
July 28, 2021–January 23, 2022

at California African American Museum

For over two decades, Sanford Biggers has been developing a singular body of work that is deeply informed by African American history and traditions, and sustains a rich dialog with contemporary art on a national and international level, referencing urban culture, the body, sacred geometry, and American symbolism.

In 2009, Sanford Biggers was commissioned by Hidden City Philadelphia, a month-long cultural project, to produce a work for the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a stop on the Underground Railroad. As Biggers researched the history of the Underground Railroad, he became intrigued by the long-debated historical narrative that quilts doubled as signposts along nineteenth-century escape routes. Inspired by those stories, he created his first quilt-based artworks for the Philadelphia project, hanging traditional-seeming quilts that visually engaged the church’s stained-glass windows. He also created and circulated a “celestial map” documenting the city’s Underground Railroad sites in which Mother Bethel figured as the North Star.

The title of the exhibition, Codeswitch, refers to both the artists’ quilt series known as the Codex series and to the idea of code-switching itself, or shifting from one linguistic code to another depending on the social context. The Codex series includes mixed media paintings and sculptures done directly on or made from pre-1900 antique quilts. This process, like linguistic code-switching, recognizes language plurality, as the quilts signal their original creator’s intent as well as the new layers of meaning given to them through Biggers’s artistic intervention.

The tradition of quilt-making holds a significant place in American culture and has special resonance in Black communities, as witnessed in the quilts of Gee’s Bend- small, insulated African American community in Alabama that has produced hundreds of quilts from the ninteenth century to the present. Women there have produced hundreds of quilts from the nineteenth century to the present. That tradition has been upheld by contemporary artists such as Faith Ringgold, Emma Amos, Sam Gilliam, and Sanford Biggers.

Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch was co-organized by Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought, New Orleans, and The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York and organized by Andrea Andersson (Founding Director and Chief Curator, Rivers Institute) and Antonio Sergio Bessa (Director of Curatorial Programs, Bronx Museum). The exhibition at CAAM is curated by Rivers Institute and is the first project in a multi-year collaboration between CAAM and Rivers. The exhibition and catalog are made possible by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund: Culpeper Arts & Culture Program, Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Marianne Boesky Gallery, Massimo De Carlo, David Castillo Gallery, Monique Meloche Gallery, Baldwin Gallery, and Yale University Press.

The exhibition premiered at the Bronx Museum of the Arts September 09, 2020- April 04, 2021

In coordination with this exhibition, Rivers also presents the digital publication, Sanford Biggers: a fractal approach, an invitation to intimate exploration of Biggers’ quilts and their fractal logic of unending discovery.

Exhibition Checklist


“Cracking Codes With Sanford Biggers”
By Siddhartha Mitter

The New York Times
Published Aug. 14, 2020, Updated Aug. 20, 2020

“Sanford Biggers show will highlight the unlikely role played by quilts in helping slaves flee to free states:
Retrospective at the Bronx Museum in New York will also include the artist’s mandala pieces”
By Gabriella Angeleti

The Art Newspaper
Publisher September 8, 2020

“In His New Works, Sanford Biggers Finds a Future Ethnography”
By Seph Rodney

Published September 8, 2020

“Sanford Biggers/The Interplay of Narrative and Linguistics”
By Joshen Mantai

Published September 9, 2020

“First Survey of Sanford Biggers’ Quilts on View at Bronx Museum”
By Kristen Tauer

Published September 10, 2020

“Sanford Biggers is Weaving New Narratives into American History”
By Harriet Lloyd Smith

Published September 10, 2020

“Sanford Biggers’ Quilts Carry Secret Messages”
By Amy Crawford

Smithsonian Magazine
September 2020

“25 Shows To See Across the US”
By Sarah Cascone & Caroline Goldstein

September 18, 2020

“Top Ten Shows in the US of 2020”
By Terence Trouillot

December 9, 2020

“History Remixed: An Interview with Sanford Biggers”
By Paul Laster

Art & Object
January 12, 2021