One of the most important African American artists of the twentieth century, John Anansa Thomas Biggers believed “that self-dignity and racial pride could be consciously approached through art," especially his own social realist murals and late career symbolic paintings. Biggers’ parents were dedicated to the education of their seven children born and raised in Gastonia, North Carolina. As a boy, Biggers attended Lincoln Academy, an all-black boarding school in nearby Kings Mountain, where pride in the students’ African heritage was stressed. In 1941, he matriculated at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia with the intent of studying plumbing. A first semester course with the Jewish émigré artist-educator Viktor Lowenfeld shifted the course of the young man’s life. Lowenfeld became a mentor to Biggers and encouraged him to explore themes of racism, as did fellow teachers Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. White, Hampton’s artist-in-residence, engaged Biggers as a studio assistant while the elder artist executed The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy. While at Hampton, Biggers also met other prominent African Americans, including Hale Woodruff and the writer-philosopher Alain Locke. Lowenfeld included Biggers’ powerful mural, Dying Soldier, in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943.
Following two years of service in the United States Navy during World War II, Biggers went on to pursue both a master’s (1948) and doctoral (1954) degree at Pennsylvania State University, where Lowenfeld was then teaching. During this period, he refined his artistic mission and style. A technically gifted draughtsman and skilled lithographer, Biggers—working primarily in conté crayon and oil paints—created striking images of unidealized figures coping with poverty and despair. In 1949, Biggers moved to Houston, Texas, where he served as founder and chairman of Texas State (now Texas Southern) University’s art department, a post he held until 1983.
In the 1950s, Biggers’ social realist emphasis evolved, largely as the result of the artist’s travel in Africa. A UNESCO fellowship funded study of West African cultural traditions in 1957 and thereafter African themes were at the center of Biggers’ work. Published in 1962, Biggers’ book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa featured eighty-nine drawings and text he hoped would “portray what was intrinsically African.” A 1969 Danforth Award funded further travel on that continent. Following his retirement from teaching, Biggers continued to paint murals and increasingly symbolic abstract works grounded in African heritage and black culture; the latter often included everyday objects such as patchwork quilts, cooking pots, gourds, and the shotgun houses so familiar from his Southern childhood. In 1995, he was the subject of a major one-man traveling exhibition, The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, curated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a museum that, in 1950, had not allowed Biggers to attend a reception in honor of his prize-winning entry at the then segregated institution.
Biggers’ murals may be seen at several public locations in Houston, as well as Hampton University and Winston-Salem State University. His work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Mint Museum of Art, and Gibbes Museum of Art, among others.