By Janice Van Buren, Ph.D.
This piece is more appropriate for children 14 years and older.
Adrian Margaret Smith Piper, 1948 Wikipedia
Ms Piper, an African-American, is an internationally known scholar who is a Conceptual artist, an analytical philosopher, and a practitioner of yoga; each area has some influence over the other. However, this narrative will only cover some of her artwork related to how she defined her racial identity for herself rather then submit to the assumptions made by others because of her physical appearance. Physical appearance is the first face-to-face information about a person that allows others to make assumptions about the person’s racial identity and place them in a specific social environment based mainly on skin color, hair texture, and facial features.
Ms. Piper’s very light skin led others to assume she was white and questioned her self-identified black identity. Racial issues became strong influences in her life and in her art because people would make unkind racial comments in her presence, assuming she agreed because she looked white. Other themes in her work include xenophobia, feminism, the feminist movement, the student anti-war protests, and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. Hence, Ms. Piper’s art is considered to be very confrontational and controversial.
Ms. Piper was born in 1948 and raised in Harlem. Her heritage is “bicultural”(African European and African Caribbean). Her parents identified themselves only as "colored". She has lived and worked in Berlin, Germany since 2005 when she learned she was listed as a Suspicious Traveler on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s Watch List.
She earned : an A. A. degree in Fine Arts,a B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval and Renaissance Musicology, and a M.A. and Ph. D. in Philosophy; she also studied at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Adrian Piper is considered to be very important in the Conceptual Art movement developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Conceptual artists, like Ms Piper, began to use unconventional and/or extreme kinds of media to create their artwork in addition to the paints, canvases, clay, or stone used for painting portraits, landscapes, carving or building statutes.
Ms. Piper uses installation art , sculpture, performance (using herself and others), photography, films, videos, text, and found art to deliver her messages. She often produced a series of artwork with the same or variation on a theme or message but using different media resulting in a different but related art piece.
Conceptual Artists use ideas and themes to create narratives, stories, or messages that can produce strong emotions and responses in the viewer. It requires the viewer to think about what was seen or heard in the artwork. Piper uses words like "I," "You," "Here," and "This," instead of "We," "There," to put the viewer in the same time frame as the object being observed. This makes a more personal interaction between the artwork and the viewer.
Ms. Piper reports being “ kicked out of the art world, twice” for being female, and for being African -American in the 1970’s. She was "rehabilitated" in the 1980’s when topics of race, gender and difference became acceptable. She stated she had no visibility or audience for her art from 1974-1987 until her first 20-year retrospective at the Alternative Museum. She later became more visible to the art world because of the reception of writers, curators, critics, academics, and other artists. Most private collectors and trustees of museum boards avoided her art before she was rehabilitated.
Click on the links below to view her artworks to see how they relate to her chosen racial Idenity.
Here she rejected the idea that she should pass for white despite hostile responses from others for identifying as African American. This is about how race and physical appearance are stereotyped.
The brown card was created as a result of being mistaken as white in predominantly white social settings. She gave the card directly to anyone who made a racist remark in her presence where her silence could be mistaken for agreement and her presence seen as being in support of white supremacy. She challenged her audience about their assumptions about race through direct dialogue. When the work was shown in the exhibit space, a stack of cards were given to viewers to bring home to distribute them to initiate dialogue.
The white card demonstrates gender issues and was given to men who assumed that she was sexually available because she was unaccompanied at a bar. It was also given out at exhibits.
3.“ Cornered” (1988) - one of her most famous and most controversial artworks.
This is a two-part video monologue totaling 16 minutes in which she defines herself as black and challenges the viewer to engage in a conversation about race, the “one drop “ rule, white people considering themselves as blacks, race as a mutually shared problem, etc. Part 1/2 and Part 2/2
This is an extended explanation of this installation art and it's message. and here is a later version of “Cornered” called “Out of the Corner” ,(1990) The white men and women in the monitors talk about the possibility that they may have ancestors who were slaves and challenge the views.
See more of Ms Piper’s artwork by clicking on “collections” and enter “Adrian Piper” in the search box of the following Web sites: Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, University Of Indiana Museum, Brooklyn Museum, New Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona.
Her gallery has more of her artwork.
- Read about the artist. Have a family discussion about the narrative.
- Have you declared your racial identity? How did you decide... did someone else decide for you?
- What do you think the artist felt when people made racial slurs about black people thinking she was white? How do you think you’d feel?
- Do you get questioned about your appearance? Have others made fun of you? If so,how did you feel? Did you tell anybody about being bullied?
5. Draw a picture of you and make changes in your appearance or
6. Use a recent photograph and change your appearance with paint or other medium.
7. Do an art project about a thought or idea you have about race. Who do you want to see it? What media do you want to use?
8. Read about a biracial family with kids your age. How are they like your family? How are they different?
Piper, Adrian. Passing for White, Passing for Black. http://adrianpiper.de/docs/Passing.pdf. Date accessed 11/4/2011.
Piper, Adrian. Out Of Order, Out Of Sight, Volumes 1and 2: Selected Writings in Meta-Art (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.