A world-reknown multimedia artist making his Brooklyn Museum debut has a bold new take on race relations.
Manhattan-based 40-year-old Sanford Biggers — whose work has already appeared at the Tate Modern and the Whitney Museum, among other elite art spaces — uses an unusual combination of photographs, paintings and video to challenge modern conceptions of African-American culture in his self-titled solo show, “Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk — An Introspective.”
The avant-garde exhibit, featuring work from 2002 to 2009, kicks off a three-month run on Sept. 23 in the borough museum’s fifth-floor rotunda.
Visitors who enter the space are immediately greeted by a grand piano that appears to have been uprooted by a gnarled 15-foot tree. The piano is balanced precariously against the tree’s trunk, as if it might keel over at any moment.
Museum Curator Eugenie Tsai said the scale and originality of “Blossom” sets the tone for the entire show.
“It’s very dramatic,” Tsai said. “It has a huge visual impact.”
Biggers said the idea for “Blossom” began as so many great works of art do: with a doodle, inspired by the “Jena Six,” a group of six black teens who mounted a protest after nooses were hung from a tree in a Louisiana schoolyard in 2006.
“It was just a doodle, basically, of a tree growing out of a piano,” said Biggers.
But the piece took on new meaning after he equipped the piano with his own-prerecorded arrangement of “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s 1939 protest song about lynching and other hate crimes, which plays in a haunting loop.
“It’s a lament of the ongoing tension and pressure of discrimination,” Biggers said.
Other pieces in the exhibit include an arresting pair of enormous, ruby-red lips hanging from the ceiling, and festooned with blinking light bulbs, that are meant to recall blackface minstrelsy.
And a bizarre video installation — featuring several black professionals dressed in suits and other formal attire who take turns scaling a tree — that Biggers said represents the perils of social climbing.
But not all of Biggers work is so heavy. The show also features beautifully woven quilts, photographs and a light show with a mirrored disco ball.
“Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk — An Introspective” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000], opens Sept. 23. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.