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Art HERstory: Adrian Margaret Smith Piper


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Photograph of Adrian Margaret Smith Piper

Photograph of Adrian Margaret Smith Piper

It’s general knowledge that New Yorkers have more drive than Tiger Woods. Despite a city full of go-getters, there are a select few that possess the ambition and the knowledge to excel above the best the world has to offer. Olive Xavier Smith and Daniel Robert Piper welcomed their bi-racial bundle of joy on September 20, 1948. From birth, Piper internally struggled with her identity. Claiming East Indian and African Quadroon, she took her issues with identity and racism and turned them into visual statements via photography, performance art, and video.

"Self Portrait as a Nice White Lady" (1995)

"Self Portrait as a Nice White Lady" (1995)

 Piper’s formal education in the visual arts began in the classrooms of New York’s School of Visual Arts. While studying, she began to display her work internationally during her junior year and graduated later in 1969. At age 21 Piper had a degree and a reputation as an artist. This was not enough for her. She continued her education and obtained a BA in Philosophy from City College of New York in 1974 and her PhD from Harvard in 1981. She was an analytic philosopher who focused on the meta-ethics and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics. While in school, Piper became familiar with the work and writings of Sol LeWitt, a conceptual artist and minimalist. His work encouraged her to incorporate text into her artwork.

 

"The Mythic Being: It Doesnt Matter #1, #2, & #3" (1975)

"The Mythic Being: It Doesnt Matter #1, #2, & #3" (1975)

Much like the issue of racism, Piper’s work is in your face and controversial. Some may even consider it down right offensive and rude. I think it’s necessary. Nobody likes the mirror to be turned on them. Surprise America! Under the cosmetics of freedom, the weave of power, and the color contacts of wealth, you’re one unattractive bitch.

 

"Colored People" (1987)

"Colored People" (1987)

Upon first glance, it’s obvious that race interactions and stereotypes played a major role in Piper’s career. Piper’s light complexion worked out in her favor when it came to battling racism in America. People often assume she is white, therefore they would reveal their true feelings about other races in her presence without reserve. When in contact with those who made racial comments, Piper would kindly hand them a small business card with a message that read:

 

"My Calling Card #1" (1986-90)

"My Calling Card #1" (1986-90)

Dear Friend,

 I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.

Sincerely yours,

Adrian Margaret Smith Piper.

 

Unfortunately the cards eventually lost their purpose when people would make racial comments around Piper just to get their hands on one of her cards.

 

"Everything #2/11b" (2003)

"Everything #2/11b" (2003)

 Although all of Adrian Piper’s work in powerful, the piece that impacted me the most was Vanilla Nightmares #2. The piece did not make sense at first, but upon close study I realized her message. Vanilla Nightmares #2 is a charcoal and crayon piece drawn on a 1986 article from  New York Times. The article strecthing between the Black woman’s legs (left page) is about apartheid, a policy of segregation enforced in South Africa. The text on the right page is about sports. Piper sketches a black head. The gender of the individual is unknown and they are missing eyeballs. Beneath the head in capital bold letters is the message: “SOLUTION– SOLUTION–/THE BLA K/ SPACE.” The phrase “the bla[n]k space” has a double meaning. On one side it refers to the expressionless black faces on the pages, symbolic of the lack of equality and identity African-Americans experience in society. The other meaning relates directly to South Africa’s print industry. The South African government would put blank, white spaces in place of photographs or articles the did not approve of. Once again, the censorship of the African-American. Piper further demonstrates her point by censoring the inner thighs and left breast of the woman with her own blank space.

"Vanilla Nightmares #2" (1986)

"Vanilla Nightmares #2" (1986)

On top of being educated and bold, Adrian Piper has accomplished much more. Since 1976, she has taken on the role of professor. She has inspired inquiring philosophical minds at Harvard University, University of Michigan, Georgetown University, Stanford, and Wellesley College. Sadly, Wellesley College terminated Piper as a professor in 2008 due to her refusal to return to the United States while listed as a Suspicious Traveler on the United States Transportation Security Administration’s Watch List. She is also a published writer. The most impressive of Piper’s accomplishments occurred in 1987. Only six years after attaining her PhD, Adrian Piper became the first tenured African-American woman professor in the field of philosophy. Take THAT stereotypes!

"Pretend Not to Know" (1989)

"Pretend Not to Know" (1989)

 

"I Embody" (1975)

"I Embody" (1975)

 

"You/I (Her)" (1974)

"You/I (Her)" (1974)


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