An artist's work from the 1980s resonates today.
Born in Harlem in 1948, Adrian Piper remains a controversial figure in contemporary art. Since the 1970s, her approach to addressing issues of racism and sexism in society have walked a fine line between thoughtful and confrontational. She first gained widespread notoriety when she dressed up as a hostile African-American man – in an Afro wig and moustache – and walked New York’s streets in an exercise that exposed racial, class and gender stereotypes.
Piper is also a highly regarded professor of philosophy, so language also plays a role in much of her work. In the mid-80s, Piper initiated a pair of spontaneous performance pieces centred around the quaint 19th Century notion of the “calling card”. In the first, printed on light brown paper that acts as a proxy for the artist’s skin tone (she is light-skinned African-American), Piper addressed moments of racism that arose in her presence. The second card (pictured here) thwarted men who tried chatting her up, making the presumption that she must be ‘available’ since she was by herself. Piper would hand these cards to the individual, forcing him to confront his behaviour in the moment, a brave act considering that she would have been physically present to deal with the reaction. (It’s logical to assume that Piper faced a lot of negativity; after all, no one likes to be called out.)
Fast forward – it is 28 years later, and the Internet has replaced the calling card as the vehicle for expressing our feelings. The arrest of one of Canada’s leading media personalities, Jian Ghomeshi, for sexual assault is currently fueling a media frenzy and has spurred debate about the extent to which North American society turns a blind eye to “rape culture”. (And, let’s not even get started on Bill Cosby!) A video of a young woman walking the streets of New York for 10 hours, during which she is subjected to over 100 instances of cat-calling and men following her, goes viral. Calls for a government investigation into the disappearance of dozens of Native Canadian women persist. And, campaigns against a man named Julien Blanc, who makes his living by teaching men how to “woo” women by using physical force and emotional manipulation, have successfully blocked his entry into Canada, the U.K. and Australia.
Piper began her confrontation with the words, “Dear Friend” and ended it with a “thank you”. Today, however, it seems that stronger language is necessary if we’re to build a world in which people of all genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations can live their lives free of harassment (or worse). Hopefully, these conversations continue and are heard by those who can foster change. May we all be brave enough to follow Piper’s lead.
Bill Clarke was the Executive Editor of Magenta Magazine Online from its inception in September 2009 until May 2017. His writing has been published in Modern Painters, Art Review, Canadian Art, Artnews and several other publications. In January 2017, he assumed the position of associate director at Angell Gallery in Toronto.