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Adrian Piper

Born, 1948

From the archived Documenta 11 website : www.documenta12.de//archiv/d11/data/english/index.html

“Adrian Piper has been a political and social activist and artist since the late 1960s, constantly in search of antidotes to ignorant actions of racism, sexism and xenophobia through an aesthetics of experience. Her performative strategies are those of public mimicry, masquerade and direct confrontation. Conspiring with the very manifestations of racism and sexism she aspires to rebuke, Piper goes through prejudice and stereotypes in order to come out at the other side, or, on the side of the other.”

Adrian Piper frequently takes herself as her subject matter, and proceeds to tackle unequivocally wide and specific issues of race and racism. One of the most interesting aspects of Piper’s work are the ways in which it unswervingly addresses American sensibilities and American conditions, using American mechanisms and aesthetics, to discuss American issues of race and racism. To this end, Piper utilises material such as the American music/chat show format, pages from the New York Times, Village Voice and photographs from America’s history.

By subtly and calmly adapting such material, Piper is confidently able to focus with almost unnerving clarity on many of the fears, paranoias and complacencies of white (and sometimes Black) middle America.

Perhaps the piece that most succinctly represents Piper’s position is the video installation Cornered . The piece features a monitor that plays and replays a tape of the artist in conversation with the viewer. Beneath the monitor there rests an up-turned table. As if to emphasise the point that Piper’s contentions are real, and that she too is a real person, copies of her birth certificate hang on either side of the monitor. In this piece, Piper has literally and metaphorically turned the tables on the viewer’s racism and complacency. Piper verbally challenges those who have taken up acquiescent positions at virtually all points on the political spectrum. Time and again Piper’s message is clear: racism, from whatever quarter, thrives on complacency. Much of her art exists to challenge this complacency. Cornered is one of the highlights of the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

It is perhaps Piper’s ability to challenge that is her greatest strength as an artist. Her work defies any quick or glib reading and demands considerable attention from the viewer. Piper’s work offers a range of readings and does so in a clear, unequivocal and at times uncomfortable way. Hence a piece like Pretend#2 features no text other than ‘Pretend not to know what you know.’ The images chronologically juxtaposed with the words are those of a malnourished African mother and baby, a portrait of a happy and healthy middle American (white) mother and her son, and a photograph of a homeless South East Asian refugee mother and child. By maintaining a cold, almost detached minimalist approach, Piper consistently achieves major impact with her work.

This work has a hidden (and at times obvious) sophistication. Piper is adept at unpeeling layers of polite social intercourse and exposing, or revealing the unspoken racism that she fels lies beneath. Despite her supposed lightness of skin colour, her background and her professional standing, Piper consistently presents herself as being on the receiving end of racism. In this regard, her work adds much to considerations of ‘passing’ and the politics of skin complexion in the late 20th/early 21st century America.

Piper utilises a wide range of media in order to explore issues close to her. For example, in her 1984 video work, Funk Lessons, Piper comments on white musicians who have commandeered, reappropriated, and exploited Black music at the expense of Black musicians themselves. Footage of the Rolling Stones is simultaneously offered up as an example of this.

The drawings in her Vanilla Nightmare series (which tackles the white nightmare of miscegenation and the sexualised violence associated with the Black male) feature racist caricatures that appear as haunting nightmares to affluent white sensibilities.

With the exception of the colour video work Funk Lessons, much of Piper’s work is strikingly monochromatic. It is as if every aspect of her work emphasises the fact that it is, literally, about black and white.

Piper was the subject of an illustrated chapter in Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, one of four books in a series titled Annotating Art’s Histories, jointly published by The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts and iniva the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, published in 2008 and edited by Kobena Mercer. It was Mercer who wrote on Piper for the book. Adrian Piper, 1970-1975: Exiled on Main Street.

Related items + view all 14

click to show details of Documenta 11_Platform 5 : Exhibition / Short Guide

»  Documenta 11_Platform 5 : Exhibition / Short Guide

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2002

click to show details of Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers

»  Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers

Book relating to a publication, 2008

click to show details of In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora

»  In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora

Book relating to a publication, 2013

click to show details of In the heart of the black box

»  In the heart of the black box

Article relating to an exhibition, 2002

click to show details of Island Stories | Ameena Meer talks to Keith Piper

»  Island Stories | Ameena Meer talks to Keith Piper

Article relating to an individual, 1992

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Documenta Halle

Kassel, Germany

»  The New Art Gallery Walsall

Walsall, United Kingdom

»  Whitechapel Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom