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John T. Biggers

John Thomas Biggers (April 13, 1924 – January 25, 2001) was an African-American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance and toward the end of World War II. Biggers has worked on creating works critical of racial and economic injustice. He served as the founding chairman of the art department at Houston’s Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University).

John Thomas Biggers was an African-American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance and toward the end of World War II. Biggers was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, and attended the Lincoln Academy, the Hampton Institute, and then Pennsylvania State University, from which he earned a doctorate in 1954. From 1954 to 1955, he was in his home town, working on the many paintings that are now very well distinguished.

His works can be found at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, primarily in the campus library.

In Houston, Texas, Biggers served as the founding chairman of the art department at Houston’s Texas State University for Negroes in 1949. Biggers received a fellowship in 1957 from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, allowing him to become one of the first African-American artists to visit Africa.

Biggers studied under Viktor Lowenfeld, first at Hampton Institute and later at Penn State. Lowenfeld significantly influenced Biggers’s artistic development. Biggers later created works that reflected his perspective of the anguish that people have suffered merely because of their race or religious beliefs.

John Biggers studied African myths and legends and was particularly drawn to the creation stories of a matriarchal deistic system, contrasting with the patriarchal images of the European world. As his ideas and images of Africa melded into the memories of his rural Southern life, his work became more geometric, stylized and symbolic. Quilt-like geometric patterning became a unifying element of his work and color became richer and lighter. However, it is critical to note that over the years, Biggers moved from creating works that were overtly critical of racial and economic injustice to more allegorical works.

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Robert Farris Thompson calls attention to Biggers’ iconic treatment of household items associated with everyday domestic life, reinforcing the representation of the shotgun house as a symbol of collective dignity and cultural identity. The recurring symbol of the simple shotgun with a woman standing on the porch can be interpreted not only as the simplest type of housing but also as a reference to women, through whom all creation comes. The repeated triangular roof shape reminds one of the pieces of a quilt, a beautiful whole cloth made from many irregular and useless pieces, another symbol of the creative force.

His papers, including correspondence, photographs, printed materials, professional materials, subject files, writings, and audiovisual materials documenting his work as an artist and educator are located at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1994, Biggers illustrated Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers”.

In 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston hosted a retrospective exhibition of Biggers’s work titled The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room. The show also traveled to Boston, Hartford and Raleigh, N.C. “He is someone who has retained, over 50 years, an emphasis on African-American culture,” said Alvia J. Wardlaw, curator of the exhibition, a recognized author on African American Art, professor and curator of Texas Southern University’s Museum. The catalogue Wardlaw created for the retrospective, The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, includes a broad selection of Biggers’s paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures.

In 1996 Biggers was invited to create the original design for the Celebration of Life mural in North Minneapolis, a predominantly African American community. The mural was completed by a number of local Minnesota artists, including a few of considerable reputation such as Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken. Unfortunately, due to the creation of a new housing development the mural was taken down in 2001.

In 2016, The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., opened a multi-year exhibit John Biggers: Wheels in Wheels which includes 12 important paintings, drawings and prints, as well as a rare example of the artist’s sculpture. “Through the use of a rich symbolic language and beautiful craftsmanship, Biggers found connections between personal, familial, and regional histories, traditions, symbols, which he wove together to articulate broader cultural and historical concerns,” the exhibit promotion stated. Themes that repeat throughout his career – the importance of women, family and triumph over adversity – are evident in the works on display.

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