Art Challenging conventions of race and gender with Adrian Piper at Milan PAC
Artconcept artexhibition

Challenging conventions of race and gender with Adrian Piper at Milan PAC

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Giorgia Massari

Can a person’s appearance define his or her identity? With this question we delve into the research of African-American artist Adrian Piper (New York, 1948), «too white for blacks, too black for whites,» from today, March 19, on view at PAC in Milan. Race Traitor is the first European retrospective devoted to the artist in more than two decades, and the exhibition features a large number of Piper’s works-lent by MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Tate, among others-that span sixty years of her career. Adrian Piper, a conceptual, minimalist artist and performer, investigates the complex mechanisms associated with racial determination and the history of mestizaje. As a female artist, in addition to racial and xenophobic issues, the artist gives back personal suffered experiences related to sexism and misogyny. But let us start at the beginning of the journey and explore the different techniques and themes that curator Diego Sileo wanted to bring together in this retrospective.


Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady, 1995 Pastello a olio su stampa alla gelatina d’argento
30,4 x 20,3 cm The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York © Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin

«What is “race”?» Agata Hofrichter asked Adrian Piper during an interview for the PAC catalog.

It isn’t anything. There is no verifiable thing, state, event or condition that is race. The term “race“ doesn’t refer to anything real. Rather, it’s a fantasy, like the Tooth Fairy, that people have used for various purposes of self-aggrandizement or self-condemnation, for roughly three hundred years.

Thus responded Adrien Piper, who has dedicated her life to the fight against racism, trying to eliminate the concept of “race” from her thinking. «To try my best to delete “race“ as a concept from my own thinking, replace it with empirically grounded concepts of ethnic and geographical origin. In conversation, I try never to use the word “race” without flagging it with the quotation marks gesture and rolling my eyes. I try never to describe other people with the adjectives “black” or “white,” which now strike me as racist insults pure and simple. I try to substitute terms that are more accurate, such as “pink,” “ivory,” “cream-colored,” “beige, ”mahogany,” etc. But in spontaneous conversation, sometimes the antiquated racist words slip out anyway because my mind has been so deeply programmed by them.»


Adrian Piper, Safe, 1990, Installazione, tecnica mista. Quattro stampe alla gelatina d’argento con testo serigrafato montate su anima di schiuma, traccia sonora. © Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin Foto: Andrej Glusgold

The PAC’s itinerary-which brings together more than one hundred works including installations, videos, photographs, paintings and drawings-opens with Adrian Piper’s youthful works, which are able to offer the visitor a very precise temporal and cultural context. We are in the 1960s, the artist has not yet started art school but her attempt to look beyond the surface of things is already clear. With the “LSD paintings” Piper is looking for something else, later he will do so with philosophical studies, particularly those on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant with whom he shares the belief that true reality is not what we see. In other words, Piper seeks the noumenal world, which according to Kant is that plane of reality that exists independently of human experience.

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being: Sol’s Drawing, 1974 Documentazione della performance Cinque stampe alla gelatina d’argento Dettaglio: #5 di 5 20,3 x 25,4 cm Foto della documentazione: James Guttmann Collezione Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Justin Smith Purchase Fund e T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2015 © Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin

Adrian Piper’s male alter ego

It is then the performances that highlight Adrian Piper’s activism. Think of The Mythic Being, her male alter ego who first appeared in 1973. He wears a mustache, wig, and sunglasses and will be recurrent in her performances until 1976. Piper’s goal is to explore the possibilities of the experience of someone with her own genetic history, that of acknowledged African descent, but with a gender and outward appearance different from her own. From ’76 onward, however, political awareness makes its definitive entry into her research, even entering media debates such as the one in ’91 that saw Anita Hill at the center and then triggered the start of the third wave of international feminism.


Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, 1970 Documentazione della performance Foto della documentazione: Rosemary Mayer Dettaglio: fotografia #1 di 3 Generali Foundation Collection—Prestito permanente al Museum der Moderne Salzburg © Generali Foundation e Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin

Concluding this introduction to Adrian Piper’s PAC exhibition is a piece of advice from the artist herself, responding to Agata Hofrichter’s question, «If the interested reader of this text asked you for one daily practice they can follow in order to erode racial discrimination, what would you recommend?»

I would suggest counteracting the pre-programmed impulse to generalize over large populations using the concept of “race“ with stubborn and persistent concentration on concrete particular individual humans. For example, whenever you catch yourself in the process of forming a judgment about “the blacks” or “Black people” or “the whites” or “White people” in response to the latest bad news about the entire human race, envision the particular coffee-colored or peach-colored or ivory-colored or mahogany-colored individuals you actually know; and ask yourself if that judgment in fact applies to them. If you don’t know any, or only associate with individuals of the same-colored skin as yours, you need to get out more.

The Race Traitor exhibition is open until June 9, 2024 at the PAC in Milan.

COVER: Adrian Piper, Everything #2.8, 2003 Fotografia fotocopiata su carta millimetrata, levigata con carta vetrata, sovrastampata con testo a getto d’inchiostro, 21,6 x 27,9 cm Collezione privata © Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin

Artconcept artexhibition
Written by Giorgia Massari
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