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Sanford Biggers at the Contemporary Arts Center

Sanford Biggers's new work develops the artist's earlier explorations of hip-hop's ethos of participation and community-building into a critique--if not quite a condemnation--of the global commodification of black culture. One of two videos in Hip Hop Ni Sasagu (In Memory of Hip Hop), 2003-04, documents the memorial service for hip-hop that Biggers arranged at a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan. Sixteen participants, including the artist and the temple master, participated in a ritual of structured improvisation, ringing Buddhist prayer bells of the kind Japanese families keep at home to commemorate their ancestors. A bell Biggers commissioned for the ceremony was displayed along with the other video, which documents how Japanese craftsmen cast the bell from hip-hop jewelry purchased in Japan. Hip Hop Ni Sasagu demonstrates a fascination with the way Japanese youth have adopted the stylings of hip-hop without understanding its value for African-Americans. Biggers offers an alternative by self-consciously blending a lay appreciation of Zen Buddhism with hip-hop's participatory esthetic, claiming for both the meaning they each lose in the global marketplace.

Black Belt Jones (2003), Biggers's portrait of 1970s blaxploitation and Kung Fu movie star Jim Kelly in his most famous role, provides a key to the exhibition, which was titled "both/and not either/or." Here, Biggers has re-created a publicity photo in grains of Indonesian black rice and American long-grain white rice glued to paper. The rice articulates the interrelatedness of African-American and Asian cultures; it is a food important to both but also refers to the trade in enslaved Africans, many of whom were brought forcibly to work on North American rice plantations. History thus makes an odd circuit--from the colonial trade in rice and slaves to the revolutionary promise Kung Fu action movies once held for black youth--to articulate a common heritage defined by commerce, culture and conflict.

In the video Danpatsu (2003-04), Biggers retells the story of Samson and Delilah within the structure of a sumo retirement ceremony, in which the wrestler's peers and supporters take turns cutting off his sumo topknot. Taking the place of the wrestler, the artist meditates with eyes closed, dressed in the traditional clothing Japanese men wear for formal occasions. A Japanese woman wearing a kimono approaches Biggers from behind, cuts off his dreadlocks and shaves his head; a close-up of her hand holding the razor reveals a hip-hop ring. Black culture has popularly been figured as masculine and Asian culture as feminine. Though it is unclear whether Danpatsu questions these conventions, the implication is that the commercialization of some black and Asian traditions--Rastafarian spirituality, hip-hop and sumo--has not shorn expressive cultural forms of their liberatory potential. Rather, their future lies in how each is valued in the present.

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