Curator’s Corner

African American History Month 2021 IV

By Karl Cole, posted on Feb 22, 2021

My African American History month celebration continues with the work of feminist/activist artist Adrian Piper. She is a pioneer in exploring gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, and prejudices through her artwork.

Conceptual artwork by Adrian Piper titled The Mythic Being: I / You / Us (1976). Six repeated black and white photographs of figure with a white t-shirt to drawn additions of a dark shirt, sunglasses, and facial hair.
Adrian Piper (born 1948, U.S.), The Mythic Being: I / You / Us, 1975. Photostats with charcoal additions, each 14 1/8" x 11" (36 x 28 cm). Image courtesy of the Artist. © 2021 Adrian Piper. (8S-20945)


In 1973, Piper created an alter-ego, the Mythic Being, who became the basis of a pioneering series of performances and photo-based works. She transformed herself into the Mythic Being by donning an Afro wig, sunglasses, and mustache and adopting behavior conventionally identified as masculine. Piper then explored how she and others responded to the Mythic Being. The piece includes photographs taken of her as her alter ego on which she inserted thought bubbles (e.g., “I embody everything you most hate and fear”).

Conceptual aesthetic was Piper’s chosen art form to express her point of view. In Conceptualism, the idea—or, in many cases, written word—was more important than the finished work of art. Piper transformed the Conceptual art practices common in the period, infusing them with strong personal and political—rather than philosophical—content.

Piper was born in New York of mixed African, Indian, and European ancestry and lived in Harlem. Pivotal events in her young adulthood were the questioning of African American neighbors about her light skin and not being "black enough." The absurdity of racial categorizations in American culture led race and gender to be the chief focus of her art.

Studying at the Art Students League during high school, Piper then studied sculpture at New York University. She began exhibiting her work at twenty, going on to receive degrees in Philosophy and musicology, and ultimately a PhD in Philosophy from Harvard in 1981. In the 1970s she began exploring ideas that would come to define her body of work, delving into controversial topics of ethnocentrism, race, and gender. She often did this in autobiographical fashion through photographs and collages. In 2014, she received an Art Lifetime Achievement award from the Women's Caucus of Art.