Adrian Piper is a contemporary first-generation conceptual artist and philosopher who confronts the issues of gender, xenophobia and most particularly race head on in her work.
Piper’s artistic journey began at a young age. She attended the Art’s Students’ League for high school, and she began to publicly exhibit her work at the age of twenty. She graduated with an A.A. in Fine Art from the School of Visual Arts in 1969. As a young artist she was heavily influenced by Sol le Witt, from whose conceptual installation comprised of three boxes she learned the art of “taking reality, or taking a physical object apart, in terms of its attributes, and combining those attributes one with another, systematically, until you have exhausted all possible combinations” (Art Beat 1992). For Piper, Sol’s representation of the complexity of physical reality provided the impetus for own work in which she intended to represent the unpredictability the complexity of human beings in all their singularity.
The first piece of Piper’s work that I saw was the Vanilla Nightmares series, which use newspaper articles on racism and apartheid as a background for her drawings depicting subjugation, confrontation, eroticism and vulnerability in a series of figures in poses. The first message that was brought home to me in Piper’s work was brutality of racial stereotyping and the objectification of women, particularly black women.
Vanilla Nightmares #2
Vanilla Nightmares #9
Vanilla Nightmares #8
While I greatly admired the bravery in her art and the message that she was sending through these contorted bodies and shaven heads, I could not understand the intimacy of her work, and the obvious connection she had with the pieces. Upon first glance, one would say that Adrian Piper is white. Her "Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features" is part of Piper’s pivotal exploration of her own identity as a white-skinned African-American in a racist society.
Portrait Exaggerating my Negroid Features
While, based on society’s superficial conventions of racial classification she is considered white, Adrian Piper considers herself to be one of those white Americans that fit the “One Drop Rule” which essentially states that one drop of African blood is enough to classify you as black. Historically, Piper comes from a black family, and she associates with the black race.
Her appearance as a light-skinned woman meant that she often found herself interacting in exclusively white circles, which meant that perhaps her most infamous piece of art travelled with her to many a social occasion. Piper began to carry calling cards on her person when in white company, and should someone make a particularly racist remark, they would be presented with the following message from the artist:
Piper’s work is abrasive and confrontational, and leaves no room to tip toe around the uncomfortable topic of racial discrimination. This is why her art is so successful – it is accessible to all those who view it, in one way or another. Piper does not intend to address an audience made up exclusively of philosophers, intellectuals and black movement sympathizers. She is reaching out to an audience which she sees as being “very much like a recalcitrant lover” (Art Beat 1992) , and as long her audience is made uncomfortable and forced to think then her artwork has served its purpose.
I particularly like Piper’s work for several reasons. On a philosophical level I appreciate her agenda regarding racial stereotyping, which is something I have come across as a white African living on foreign shores, however, in terms of technique, I love Piper’s expressive method of working, and the different temperatures and textures of anger that come through in her drawings, particularly in the Vanilla Nightmares series. I admire the way she echoes the malleability of the human psyche in her choice of medium, and I especially love the way she represents the human form in her drawings – rounded, full and powerful.
I believe Adrian Piper is a revolutionary figure in the world of art and philosophy. Her work has greatly influenced my own and I have no doubt will continue to do so.
Art beat. (1992, Oct 13). The Village Voice, pp. S12-S12.