John Biggers, Origins and Ascension, C. G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University, 1990-1992

John Biggers murals stand as towering milestones within the landscape of American art, embodying a rich tapestry of Black life, culture, and history. Born in 1924 in Gastonia, North Carolina, Biggers embarked on a journey that would see him become one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. His work, deeply rooted in the African American experience and imbued with themes of unity, the universal quest for freedom and dignity, transcends mere artistic expression to serve as a profound societal commentary. His work often depicts the resilience and richness of African American life, weaving together narratives of struggle, community, and the unbreakable bonds of family. These experiences infused his murals with a sense of connectedness to his ancestral roots, manifesting in his work’s intricate patterns, symbols, and motifs. I recently had the opportunity to drive over to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to see two murals Biggers was commissioned to make for the C. G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University, his only two murals in his home state.  

Biggers, the son of a preacher and a homemaker grew up in the segregated South, an environment that shaped his worldview and artistic endeavors. His journey into the arts led him to Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia, where, despite having enrolled to become a plumber, he worked with the renowned artist and educator Viktor Lowenfeld, who was previously the curator at the Vienna Museum of African Art, as well as Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, who both taught at Hampton. During this time, he achieved early recognition when one of his paintings was featured in MoMA’s pivotal 1943 exhibition, “Young Negro Art,” marking the beginning of his esteemed reputation. After earning his Ph.D. in fine arts from Pennsylvania State University, Biggers accepted a teaching role at Texas Southern University, Houston, where he established the art department in 1949. 

Despite achieving national recognition in the art world, Biggers continually confronted the realities of racial discrimination throughout his life. In the 1950s, he received prestigious purchase prizes from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Dallas Museum of Art. Still, due to museums’ racial segregation policies, he was barred from attending the award ceremonies. Lowenfeld’s emphasis on the importance of cultural heritage in art profoundly influenced Biggers, steering him towards exploring his African roots and the African American experience. His exploration of West African cultural traditions and symbolism in 1957, supported by a UNESCO fellowship, positioned African themes at the heart of his work. The fellowship allowed him to become one of the first African American artists to journey to Africa. 

Biggers painted his first mural in 1950. Titled “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education” it was created for the Blue Triangle YWCA in Houston, Texas. His murals are a vibrant confluence of African heritage, American history, and the universal quest for freedom and dignity. 

His work often depicts the resilience and richness of life, weaving together narratives of struggle, community, and the unbreakable bonds of family. His African travels infused his murals with a sense of connectedness to his ancestral roots, manifesting in his work’s intricate patterns, symbols, and motifs. Another pervasive theme in Biggers’ art is the celebration of women whom he portrayed as central figures in the community and culture. His experiences of segregation and the civil rights movement deeply informed his murals and often served as a powerful commentary on social injustice and the collective struggle for equality.

Throughout his career, Biggers received commissions to produce 27 murals for public spaces. The story of my favorite two began in August 1988, when members of Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts traveled to Houston to visit Biggers in his studio and pick works for an exhibition that would be happening soon. After visiting several of his murals in Texas and discovering that he had not created one back home in North Carolina throughout his 47-year career, they resolved to commission a mural project for Winston-Salem. Delta Fine Arts is an incredible organization, established in 1973 by a graduate chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority as part of a national network of African American collegiate women who focus on cultural, educational, and public service initiatives as its core objectives and goals. Together, they chose the atrium of the then-under-construction new addition to the O’Kelly Library Winston-Salem State University. 

The early 1990s were supposed to be his “retirement” years. However, Biggers accepted two commissions to create four massive murals between 1990 and 1992 at Winston-Salem and Hampton University. To assist with this heavy workload, he turned to his nephew James, a working artist and co-coordinator for the art department of the Gaston County public school system, North Carolina, to assist him. They would work on each project simultaneously, three days of the weekend at one site, drive between them, and three days of work at the other. This is why these murals were in a different style than Bigger’s previous work; James’s work was more geometric and abstract than his uncle’s. Then, I used a collaborative method to design and execute the murals. Biggers described it as: “One weekend, we traveled to Raleigh, arranged tables side by side in a hotel room, and brainstormed our concepts. The challenge lay in aligning his abstract sketches with my realistic style, yet the fusion occurred organically. James’s art has always possessed a more celestial quality than mine, leading him to draw inspiration from the cosmos downwards. James’s work has always been more celestial than mine, so he began to draw from the heavens downward. Mine always has been rooted in earth and water, so it worked from the bottom upwards. I think of growth as seeds bursting while James thinks of stars bursting.”

For the commission in C.G. O’Kelley Library, Biggers was tasked with crafting two vertically aligned murals, each measuring 30 by 15 feet, to serve as visual anchors on either side of a freestanding staircase within the three-story atrium. On one side is Origins, a profound exploration of the quest to understand the genesis of life, intertwining legends of the great mother goddesses, Egyptian deities, sacred animals, the dualities of nature, and cosmic forces. The work is visually split into two distinct halves, symbolizing the passage of time from day to night through the interplay of sunlight and moonlight. At its heart, the mural features the life-giving water pot perched on an African ceremonial stool, from which both animal and plant life emerge, depicted by fish and turtles that appear to swim within the pot itself.

Origins goes further to weave a narrative that connects earthly life with celestial phenomena, using symbols like the sacred elephant, bearer of life-sustaining waters, and the story of Osiris, the African god of fertility, whose depiction lying on a double-headed crocodile symbolizes the cycle of life and death. The mural skillfully layers images, with Osiris’ eye serving as a focal point near the elephant, blending abstract and realistic elements to depict the intricate relationship between the divine and the mortal. Biggers introduces figures like Isis and Nephthys, embodying the fertile waters and the sun, and their male counterparts, presenting a rich tapestry of creation myths that speak to the origins of day and night. Through Origins, Biggers not only celebrates African mythology but also critiques and reflects on the broader human condition, using a complex array of symbols to convey themes of creation, unity, and the cyclical nature of existence.

Across the stairwell, Ascension serves as a vivid narrative that portrays the collective experiences, aspirations, tribulations, and jubilations of life in America. Embedded within the artwork are messages highlighting the importance of familial support and unity across generations to overcome life’s obstacles; the role of a nurturing neighborhood and community in fostering individual achievements; and the critical necessity for individuals to cultivate a comprehensive knowledge base. This foundational knowledge not only facilitates personal growth but also enhances self-esteem and a clear understanding of one’s role in the universe. The mural skillfully incorporates three railroad tracks as metaphors for life’s challenges, positioned at the bottom, middle, and top, drawing parallels to historical divisions and paths to freedom associated with African American migration.

Contrary to OriginsAscension delves into the African American experience, elevating the family metaphor to monumental proportions with clear and vibrant imagery. The mural, dominated by a large, flower-like circular shape at the top, symbolizes emergence from adversity and ascent towards enlightenment, with bright colors signifying hope and rejuvenation against the backdrop of more muted earth tones. The presence of shotgun houses and the representation of matriarchal figures underscore themes of hope, ancestral legacy, and communal support. The family, central to the narrative, is depicted with seven members, each symbolically contributing to the mural’s overarching themes of resilience, unity, and aspiration. Biggers masterfully creates a sense of spatial depth while retaining the mural’s inherent flatness, illustrating the familial ascent over historical and societal barriers symbolized by railroad tracks and household items, suggesting a collective overcoming of the past towards a hopeful future.

Through these murals, Biggers weaves a rich tapestry of symbolism and history, offering a lens through which we can explore themes of struggle, unity, knowledge, and transcendence. They collectively underscore Biggers’ masterful ability to blend personal, cultural, and universal elements into a visually stunning and thematically powerful oeuvre. These murals stand as a testament to Biggers’ visionary talent, serving as enduring beacons of hope, resilience, and the indomitable spirit of the African American community. Biggers invites us to ascend from our collective pasts, armed with the knowledge and unity necessary to illuminate our paths forward, thereby solidifying his legacy as a pivotal figure in the narrative of American art.