Close Looking:

John Biggers – Characterizing Symbolism

by Shantay Robinson

Throughout his career, John T. Biggers (1924 – 2001) focused his art’s subject matter on racial and economic injustice. As a well-educated artist, he influenced so many, including his students but also his fellow artists. Biggers started out by painting exaggerated figuration, and, by the end of his career, he painted geometric allegories. Using symbology and African cosmology, his stylistic choices changed, but his focus on empowerment of his people remained steadfast.

Having lost his father as a child, his mother sent him and his brother to Lincoln Academy, a boarding school for black children, where he acquired a position working as a “fireman” who would light the morning fires. During the mornings, Biggers found time to be alone, and he would read The New York Times book reviews and illustrate the stories. Biggers forged a connection to African culture while at Lincoln through the school’s principal Henry McDowell, a missionary in West Africa who shared lessons on African culture that would influence Biggers’ career as an artist.

In 1941, Biggers enrolled at Hampton Institute (Hampton University) where he planned on studying plumbing; his application included boiler room drawings. But he encountered an art class with Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee who introduced his students to the art of African-American artists. At Hampton, Biggers studied under Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. But in 1943, he was drafted to the Navy where he made models of military equipment for training purposes. He became severely depressed while in the Navy and was discharged in 1945. In 1946, Biggers was encouraged by Viktor Lowenfeld to follow him to Pennsylvania State University where he was teaching. Biggers received his bachelor’s and master’s in art education from Pennsylvania State University in 1948. He then went on to earn his doctorate from the university in 1954. Biggers chaired the art department at Texas State University (now known as Texas Southern University) where he retired in 1983.

As one of the first African-American artists to travel to Africa with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Fellowship, Biggers’ connection to the continent deepened. He traveled with his wife Hazel to Nigeria, Togo, Dahomey, and Ghana. As a result of his trip, he created his award-winning book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa. He and his wife returned to Africa in 1969 with funds from the Danforth Foundation’s E. Harris Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching. He traveled over the course of six months to Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Biggers’ notoriety started early in his career as an artist. While still an undergraduate, his mural Dying Soldier (1943) was included in the Young Negro Art exhibition at MoMA, which Viktor Lowenfeld organized. And The Cradle (1950) won first prize at Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s annual exhibition. The Cradle is a drawing of a woman holding three children whose faces are immersed in the woman’s breast as she rests her heavy head on her hand. The artwork is reminiscent of Migrant Mother (1936), the photograph by Dorothea Lange depicting a Depression-era woman with her three children that became representative of the condition of the time. The Cradle, created after Migrant Mother, might compare the condition of the Depression era to that of the black mother.

John Biggers, “The Cradle” (1950) 

The drawing Cotton Pickers (1947) depicts two men and two women with their cotton picking sacks. The large hands and feet on the figures highlights how these people were valued. They used their hands to meticulously extract cotton from the stalks they grew from. They walked rows of cotton fields every day. The facial features for the subjects in the drawing depict the characters as tired and weary. The female subject at the center seems to be the main character in this artwork with supporting characters flanking on both sides of her. The woman has an empty sack while the man on the left has cotton in his sack, and the woman and man don’t show what’s in their sacks. The supporting characters seem to be empathizing and consoling the main subject with her empty sack. Much can be drawn from the expression on each of the supporting characters’ faces. There is a story being told in the details.

John Biggers, “Cotton Pickers” (1947)

In Shotgun, Third Ward (1966), Biggers shifted. In this artwork, figures are present but scenery is added. The scene depicted in Shotgun, Third Ward is a familiar scene in black communities. Here, we see community members gathered during a summer night. The children play in the street while adults watch them from the sidewalk. Though this could be the scene on any typical night with the community’s presence outside their homes, Biggers inserts a cause for congregating. It looks like a church was on fire, which is where the pale red fills the canvas. The artwork is also almost totally black and white except for bursts of color toward the left side of the canvas where a woman’s dress is colored red and embers burn on the roof of a church. The street is wet, so the fire at the church might have been recently put out by firefighters. And though the embers of the fire seem to still burn, the children are back to playing in the streets and the neighbors are back living their lives. Church bombings in the 1960s might be the impetus for this painting, but what Biggers is really showing us is the resilience of the people. Biggers was known to have said that inspiration comes to him from young people and older people. Here, in this work, we see how his inspiration from the generation behind him and the ones before him play out on the canvas.

Shotgun, Third Ward #1 (1966)

When Biggers created Family Circle (1997), his style had changed drastically. He went from naturalistic human form to geometric figuration. This artwork of a man, woman, and their children is created in a style that includes symbology and African cosmology. In this artwork, a woman and man sit with their backs to the viewer. We can tell the woman from the details that inform her dress like bracelets on her wrist and ankle and the dress that reaches around her ankles. Two children are completing the family circle—one child with her arms stretched wide is below the woman and man, and the other child hovers above them with his arms stretched wide. The stars that surround the couple are representative of purity, good luck, and ambition. The fish in the water below them represents the unconscious of higher self, feelings, and motives. The fish are a metaphor for deeper awareness and intelligence. Water brings life and creatures living below the water’s surface symbolize fertility, birth, and rebirth. The dove in the upper right-hand corner and lower left corner symbolize peace and freedom. The family circle is blessed by this composition. Not only do the figures form a circle, every element in the artwork was used to strengthen the narrative of their union.

Family Circle (1997)

In a Dallas Museum of Art video on YouTube, Biggers states that his trips to Africa were the beginning of his second learning. He states, “I learned the meaning of mythology. I learned the meaning of unity in life. I learned the meaning of the extended family. And I learned the meaning of symbolism. And I learned that symbolism itself is language.” He states his work directly shows the influence of Africa. Before his pilgrimage, Biggers was inspired mainly by European artists. But he wanted to synthesize the two cultures he was a part of to show the beauty of the synthesis.

In Samella Lewis’ text African American Art and Artists, John Biggers is quoted as saying:

The universal symbols that characterize my work are items such as the old black three-legged iron wash-pot, the washboard, the anvil, the well, the fireplace and chimney, the straight chair with the cane bottom, and the bedstead. These are magnificent objects, and they are known universally by individuals who have lived close to the earth. These are the main symbols that I put in my work that I hope will convey universal meaning.

John Biggers left behind an influential canon of artworks. What might be his most striking attribute is his compassion for women that are evoked through works he created in the 1940s like Mother and Child and The Cradle, as well as his most well-known mural The Contribution of Negro Women in American Life and Education (1953) that seemed to have given voice to the struggle of black women and their families.

His later works like Family Circle and Starry Crown are more allegorical, as they use symbolism to tell stories. Studying the entire canon of John Biggers’ work is an exercise in visual literacy, as he used the forms on his canvases to tell stories about African-American life. Though the Museum of Fine Arts Houston curated a retrospective of his artistic career including paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures in 1995, many of his majestic pieces are murals that live with the people on walls throughout cities and towns nationwide.

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Shantay Robinson was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, Arts ATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.

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