In his exhibition Unspoken Burdens at the South Dallas Cultural Center until Aug. 14, the artist uses neon dots atop greyscale portraits to broach the subjects of masculinity, insecurity, vulnerability, stereotyping and repression.
Unspoken Burdens was born as a way for Biggers to work through his own pandemic-related, quarantine-created insecurities, as well as all the horror and general bullshit of 2020 and 2021: a global pandemic, nationwide shutdowns, the murder of George Floyd, nationwide protests, the election cycle, Capitol riots, the winter storm, the failure of Texas’ power grid and all the rest.
Because of social distancing, Biggers, a portraitist, was unable to shoot reference photos for portraits. Because of copyright laws, he was hesitant to use images off the internet. Without a stockpile of images and with a shuttered studio — and meanwhile gaining weight and struggling with body-image issues — he hit a mental low.
“It was one of the lower points of my life,” Biggers says. “It got to a point throughout that year that I was really wanting to make work again and get out of the funk. I didn’t realize how much of my happiness was tied to productivity and seeing things completed … It was just like, ‘I need to do something, this is miserable.’
"And so I started working on stuff that was basically the genesis of this show because I wanted to document where I was and use the work to show where I was mentally and where the world was with everything going on.”
Biggers originally decided to do a series of paintings about Black men’s insecurities because, he explains, there’s no place for men — and, more specifically, for Black men — to discuss them. But he quickly recognized that the focal point ought not to be the insecurities themselves, but rather the inability to speak about them.
“Once I created the first few pieces and I showed those, I realized it’s less about the insecurities — because everyone has insecurities, it’s not an exclusively Black male experience — as it is the insecurities and everything else that comes with life that compounds on top of that,” Biggers says. “It was more about the unspoken burdens that Black men carry. Because, like I said, there’s no space that is available for Black men to be 100 percent vulnerable.”
Black men cannot always be vulnerable with significant others because that involves stressing them out with their burdens, according to Biggers; nor can Black men always be vulnerable with friends because vulnerability oftentimes receives the suck-it-up-and-man-up rebuff.
“Whether it’s romantically, whether it’s professionally, there’s so many people that look to Black men and expect us to be stoic and have that way of moving through the world — but then on top of that you see how the police interact with Black men,” Biggers says. “So you’re not able to be 100 percent vulnerable, you’re worried about all the day-to-day life stuff that everyone worries about, but then on top of that, you have to worry about ‘Am I going to get pulled over for not using a blinker and then I don’t make it home?’"
Biggers says he wanted his body of work to "speak to that feeling" of Black men's insecurities, within themselves and in the world.
"Even if no one else felt that, if it didn’t resonate with anyone else, it’s something that was important to me in that moment and still is in this moment,” he says.
Biggers reached out to a few friends and explained the concept of this newly conceived body of work, then told them to think about whatever insecurities or burdens had come to mind while he was explaining. He then photographed them as they pondered their burdens, which remained unspoken. Biggers did not ask subjects about their insecurities or struggles, instead attempting to capture the substance of the burden through the unspoken tension in their eyelids, facial expressions and body postures.
All of the portraits in Unspoken Burdens are painted in greyscale on a gray background. All of them have neon highlights, too — some in the form of dots covering the figure, others in the form of a fluorescent shadow lining the figure. The neon gradient might look like a gimmick to break up the monotony of the greyscale, but it’s not; it’s profoundly symbolic.
“Even though we all have flaws and we have things that we’re insecure about, and we have burdens that we carry, it’s the smallest percentage of us, it’s the smallest thing that makes us who we are and our identity,” Biggers says. “So I wanted [the neon gradient] to be the smallest part of the pieces — percentage wise. So, yes it grabs your attention, but it’s not the total makeup of who the person is. Because similarly, we hyper-focus on our insecurities and things that we don’t like about ourselves, but to our loved ones, the people that care about us, yeah, they might see it, but it’s not the forefront of what they love about us, it’s not the forefront of what they pay attention to.”
It’s also important to note the distinction between the dots and the shadow linings. For the latter, Biggers aimed to imply that just as the shadow linings are not part of the figure, but rather adjacent to it, so are our imperfections merely external to our true selves. As for the former, he wanted to speak to and for people with insecurities which are immediate, instantly noticeable and unable to be hidden; just as you can see the figure through the dots, he says, so “you can still see that person through the quote-unquote imperfections or insecurities.”
The exhibition grapples with the political through the personal, it's a perusal of what the system has wrought, yes, but is also a reflection of where the artist himself was in a certain time, mental and physical place.
“In this process of me coming up with the concept of the show as well as actually, physically making the works, I documented myself working on the works and could see a difference in the weight loss,” Biggers says. “I lost 55 pounds during the process of working on it. So it was like me dealing with myself as I was also trying to help others. And I think that’s an important part of the narrative, of the works — is that, you don’t have to perfect yourself in order to be a help to others, or at least attempting to help others.”