Family Ark

  • 1992
  • Color offset lithograph triptych
  • Image/sheets (three joined): 29¾ x 49½ inches (74.6 x 125.7 cm)
  • Center panel (image/sheet): 29¾ x 21 9/16 inches (7 4.6 x 54.8 cm)
  • Right panel (image/sheet): 29 ¾ x 13 15/16 inches (74.6 x 35.4 cm)
  • Side panels: 2009-61-7a,b
  • Center panel: Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Print Revolving Fund,
  • 1999-122-2
About the Print

JOHN BIGGERS (American, 1924-2001) was an accomplished draftsman, printmaker, and visual storyteller. Family Ark is a grand story divided into three sections, a triptych, that Biggers designed to be shown altogether, with the center panel on its own, or with the side panels paired together. Elements of symmetry, geometry, and pattern appear everywhere. Symmetrical in design, the scene is composed like a balanced scale with a kneeling boy at the fulcrum. Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and protection (known by her horned headdress), is also positioned in the center, above the boy. She alone faces forward as she extends her embrace to all. At the core, John Biggers’s message is both personal and epic: the family unit, the foundation of human society, bonded together in spirituality and love, remains strong and will prevail. 

 

“The role of art is to express the triumph of the human spirit
over the mundane and the material.”

– John Biggers

Let's Look
  • What are some of the things you notice? Look again. What more do you see?
  • Circles and ovals are repeated throughout this image. Where do you see them? How do the large circles and ovals help connect the center image with the side images?
ABOUT THE CENTER PANEL

John Biggers designed Family Ark so that the three panels of the triptych could work alone or in combination. The orange-red of the center panel helps distinguish it as the centerpiece.

Men stand, women sit, and children kneel in still reverence before an altar elaborately decorated with African motifs. Abstract and geometric, the figures seem more like icons than humans, even in their overalls and bare feet. Arms extend to include every family member. Visually, the scene is complex. Geometric shapes overlap, and circles repeat within more circles. Surfaces are lush with lines and shadows, light and dark. Patterns are drawn flat in some places but given the illusion of depth and perspective elsewhere.

In addition to mythological references, Biggers included everyday things in his work, but he gave them new meaning as symbols of life, death, and regeneration. A small wash pot and scrubboard, front and center in the foreground, may serve as a metaphor for motherhood or the act of spiritual cleansing. In Family Ark, ceremonial African combs stand like tall columns or decorative banners across the background. A soft orange-red, the color of clay from the earth, adds a sense of warmth to this sacred space.

LOOK CLOSELY AT THE CENTER PANEL
  • This artwork is a triptych (composed of three sections put together). Focus on the center panel. How many figures can you find? What is their relationship? What are they doing? What makes you think that?
  • Find Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love and protection, known by her horned headdress.
  • Find Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld and cycles of nature and regeneration. He is stretched out in his long, barred coffin.
  • How do these two gods' qualities relate to the idea of family?
  • Biggers placed oversized African ceremonial combs across the background of this panel (and the side panels too). Can you find five?
ABOUT THE LEFT AND RIGHT PANELS

The side panels fit together to form a diptych (two panels).
The leopard in the left panel stands with a ceremonial seat fit for royalty on its back. An elephant stands in the right panel. In African mythology, animals are often given exaggerated human traits, some good and some not. One of the animals here is associated with courage and ferocity while the other one possesses dignity, wisdom, and patience.

LOOK CLOSELY AT THE "FAMILY ARK" SIDE PANELS
  • Biggers included a leopard and an elephant bearing thrones on their backs. In African mythology, the leopard is associated with courage and ferocity, the elephant with dignity, wisdom, and patience. How does the way they are drawn help express those traits?
  • How do the panels come together to express ideas about family?
  • How does this African American artist celebrate his African heritage in this print?

John Biggers

American
Born Gastonia, North Carolina, 1924; died Houston, 2001
Photograph by Earlie Hudnall
About the Artist

John Biggers was born in North Carolina, where he learned about hard work and the importance of family at an early age. After his father’s death, he helped his mother support the family, and he always remembered her strength and courage. By 1954, Dr. Biggers had earned a PhD in education from Pennsylvania State University. Renowned as an educator and author, he is best remembered as a muralist who created public works that honor the richness of African American culture and celebrate his African heritage.

Curriculum Connections

Suggested Topics for Art Projects, Group Discussion, and Independent Writing

Art

Symbols

Paint, draw, or print a large family tree that represents you and your genealogy. Make and attach symbols that reflect something about you and members of your immediate and extended family.

Diptych/Triptych

Create a narrative diptych or triptych that illustrates a family tradition or event. Include objects, colors, patterns, or shapes that symbolize the occasion and its significance to you. The two or three panels should relate to each other in topic and style. How will they fit together?

Language Arts

Mythology

Research the ancient Egyptian gods Hathor and Osirus. Imagine what they think about being included in Family Ark. What might they say?

In Your Opinion

"The role of art is to express the triumph of the human spirit over the mundane and the material."
Consider John Biggers' quote about his artwork. Does Family Ark reflect the spirit of his words? How? If not, why not?

Social Studies

Research an Artist

Biggers honored African and African American cultural traditions from Egypt to the West Coast. Until his death in 2011, the Nigerian artist Prince Twins Seven-Seven also celebrated African culture, especially Yoruba art and music, but with a modern touch. Research why Prince Twins Seven-Seven was given the UNESCO Artist for Peace Award in 2005. What do you think Biggers would feel about this achievement?