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The Art of Community

Part of the exhibition's title refers to a widely sung African-American spiritual, "Upper Room." The song, a call to the community to come together and welcome the spirit of redemption, symbolizes the spiritual journey that each man and woman takes during a lifetime. From the beginning, Biggers' work dealt with the lives of ordinary people, the laborers upon whose backs rest the weight of their work, whose daily goal is survival, yet who out of the struggle develops a strong sense of self and an attitude of hope.

Biggers remains obsessed with the spiritual aspiration of African-Americans. The MFA's Cullinan Hall and surrounding galleries are filled with Biggers' portrayal of black life in the South -- a study of the meaning of vegetation, the landscape, the weather, the color of the South and it's people, the meaning of religion and whole cultural patterns. If anything, the retrospective effectively conveys the artist's unflagging devotion to specific themes: the black family, the black woman, man's connection to nature, the working community and spiritual renewal.

This cohesive vision enabled him to proceed in a direction not taken by his peers. While many African-American artists of his generation traveled to Europe for inspiration, Biggers chose to travel to Africa. While many African-American artists went to New York to study and refine their art, Biggers looked to the open frontiers of Texas and Mexico. Whereas many black artists embraced the European notion of the avant-garde, Biggers continued to create symbolically representational works. In the process, he achieved a certain narrative clarity: a vocabulary of visual forms that is both unmistakable and evocative.

From an early admiration of simple things -- the beauty of a white shirt coming out of a black wash pot, for example -- Biggers learned about structure and order, even the symbolic unity of art and life. As a child, Biggers helped his mother wash clothes by drawing the water, filling the tub and bringing the pot to a boil. The whole process was necessary to eke out a living, but the washboard also came to represent a baptismal rite, a washing of the soul for all of one's sins against the Earth and humanity. Significantly, the white clothes, the black pot and the red clay have formed the basis of Biggers' palette for more than 45 years. This mixture of muted color, geometric pattern and symbolic image creates a circling, fuguelike rhythm throughout the exhibition.

More often than not, Biggers seeks a balancing sense of hope in even the most dismal of human circumstances. One of the surprises in the retrospective is how well the dual themes of hope and despair hold up in the early works, their haunting and emotional power shining clear through the decades. Paintings created during the 1940s reflect the depths not only of Biggers' personal depression, but also that of all black people forced to survive in a hostile, crowded environment. In boldly conceived works, Biggers portrays the derelicts, rape victims, bag ladies and garbage men who bear with them the destructive forces of Northern ghetto life. Placed in shallow, claustrophobic spaces, these figures are defined in brooding tones and aggressive brushwork. Victim of the City #2 depicts an isolated, pathetic woman with oversized hands and feet. Her bowed head and slumped posture is that of a dead soul.

The sacred nature of ritual, the healing of the spirit, the symbolism of water as pure life are vividly communicated in Biggers' African sojourn. Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival (1959-63) shows people dressed in the white, gold and silver garments designed to welcome the new year. Dancing in circles, they symbolize the movement of the seasons as well as the moon and the stars. In the African drawings, there is a new feeling of spiritual connection with the earth. Biggers' lyrical use of line, combined with veils of crosshatching and densely constructed areas of darkness, imparts dignity and elegance to individuals. Their heads, for example, are seemingly shoved into our space, a sort of body-to-body experience through which we become intimate with the nose, lips, brows, even neck muscles of women such as Daughter of the Moon (1957). In Man Throttled (1968), a rope is drawn through the man's mouth and knotted at the back of his head; the forehead is a welter of spiral forms, like tree roots, illustrating the West African belief that all morals come from the head, the center of the body.

Biggers matches the people's intensity with his own expansive drawing style, their sensitivity with his own careful delineations on paper. His recurring images not only display patterns of African culture but share meaning with universal themes of community. In Going to Church (1964), Biggers uses Conte crayon to depict a group of people turned out in their Sunday best. With backs toward the viewers, they seemingly walk like gods through their neighborhood.

The community as a center of ceremonial activity also finds expression in the series of "Shotgun" and "Ascension" paintings based on geometric shapes and filled with symbolic objects and archetypal female forms. In Shotgun, Third Ward (Bringing Light to the Ghetto) (1987), row upon row of the triangular houses seemingly float behind three women in African dress. The railroad tracks before them, punctuated with turtles, crows and red birds, represent the ability to come and go, as well as a physical or racial barrier. In more recent paintings such as Seven Little Sisters (1987-89), Biggers uses the expansive order of astronomy to provide a structure for his humanistic views. Although the title refers to the Pleiades, Biggers also relates the work to the first stellar calendars, conveying the voyage of life through the female. Here, the movement of the sun begins and ends with the wash pot, the symbol for matriarchy, cleansing and purification.

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