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John Biggers: The Impact And Significance Of Symbolization In African American Art

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John Biggers: The Impact and Significance of Symbolization in African American Art

The integrated symbols of African American and African cultural themes within the artwork of John Biggers greatly reflects and displays women playing a non-stereotypical role within society. First it is important to understand the definition of symbolization, which is defined as, "the systematic or creative use of arbitrary symbols as abstracted representations of concepts or objects and the distinct relationships in between, as they define both context and the narrower definition of terms." Now that I have clarified the definition of symbolization I can proceed in showing you exactly what a huge role symbolism plays in John Biggers' artwork and most importantly his murals. Therefore, by examining and explaining John Biggers' cultural roots and early lifestyle, along with Aunt Dicy, his last piece of artwork from his earlier art styles, and comparing his murals Longhoreman and Nubia, I will prove my opinion of just how significant the use of symbolization is to portray the important messages that are held within all of John Biggers' artwork.

First of all, is the important focus of John Biggers' cultural roots. John Biggers was, "from Gastonia, North Carolina, he was born in a shotgun house built by his father, Paul. The shotgun houses were very popular in this particular day of time because they were designed where every room connected to another, and their name symbolizes that you could literally fire a shotgun through one side of the house and a bullet would go straight through the house and come out the other end. They were very simple in their design and building shotgun houses took no time at all. John Biggers' father was a Baptist preacher, schoolteacher, farmer, principal of a three-room school, and shoemaker. His mother, Cora, did laundry and cooked for white families." Being raised in such a structured strong rooted up bringing John Biggers was raised in a family that was able to keep their feet on the ground, and they were able to ground themselves in the south where obtaining a structured and successful life as an African American was almost unheard of. Therefore, his childhood days gave him a strong stepping stool into the real world, and aloud him to strive for only the best, but at the same time he was able to keep things real by never losing the true perspective of things. Another lifestyle influence that took place and is displayed in John Biggers' art work is described when Cavan Leerkamp states, "As I have read and studied I would say the greatest influence on his art (other than of course his awe-inspiring teacher Professor Lowenfeld) would be his trip to Africa. What makes symbols truly special is a spiritual and personal connection made through an experience relating to that symbol." John Biggers' trip to Africa gave him hands on experience of the African Culture and aloud him to take his perceptions of the culture and apply personal and spiritual symbols to create a central theme within his artwork. The impact that the culture had upon John Biggers and his ability to soak up their history, legends, and traditions has greatly been displayed and influenced his portrayal of African American's within his murals and he has contributed to the cultural impact within society itself. Secondly, around 1956 one of John Biggers' best friends otherwise known as J. Mason Brewer asked him if he would depict the images and illustrate his adult-teen stories. These images became some of the last images produced by John Biggers within his early stages and symbolize to make up the period of his early stages within his artwork otherwise known as his way and views of life before he visited Africa. Although the time period and generation that Aunt Dicy lived in might now have been ready for her, she was fully ready for them. John Biggers illustrates a character of that in, which, "The spirit of Aunt Dicy Johnson of Burleson County, East Texas, is one of self-assured determination expressed through her strong moral stance, her ingenuity and her wit. In the power of her personality, she becomes iconic of the strength of black women in the African Diaspora. From Aunt Dicy emerges the richness of character that Biggers would find again a year later in the women of West Africa, personifying the strength of spirit that enabled black people to endure the horrors of the Middle Passage and beyondÐ'.... she creates a homestead in a Texas that is vast and often difficult, but she perseveres and ultimately she, the land and its white inhabitants all reach an understanding." Below in Figure 1 the cover page drawn by John Biggers for her catalog is displayed along with the name of her book.

Figure 1. Aunt Dicy Tales: John Biggers' Drawings For the Folktale.

In my opinion Aunt Dicy is my favorite piece of art by John Biggers. Not only is he able to create her every movement and non-movement to parallel with J. Mason Brewer's language characterization, but also he is able to create four different strong and bold character stances within each of the four stories. It also makes sense to me how John Biggers would have such a strong hold or attraction to Aunt Dicy; after all, he did create a very strong role model Aunt Dicy. She was portrayed over into three of Biggers paintings. One in which Aunt Dicy holds a shotgun on the front porch within John Biggers', First Shotgun (1951). Aunt Dicy is also symbolized and portrays a young gothic mother who is nursing her baby in John Biggers' painting, Mother and Child. Lastly, the expressive spirits of the market women in Nigeria are depicted in and with the upscale groups of the exchange depicted in John Biggers', Quilting Party, which is shown below in Figure 3. In this image the viewer is able to see the representation of Aunt Dicy through the women, and their expression of spirit in the market place of Nigeria.

Figure 1. First Shotgun (1951).

Figure 3. Quilting Party, 1980-81.

Either way you look at it John Biggers and J. Mason brewer's creation of Aunt Dicy is brave, new, bold, and beautiful in my opinion. Although he had not yet been to Africa to



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