Philosopher and Conceptual Performance Artist Adrian Piper

Philosopher and Conceptual Performance Artist Adrian Piper

Philosopher and conceptual artist Adrian Piper (b. 1948) has used her visual and performance art to explore her own multiracial and feminine identity, as well as more universal ideas about gender and race.

Piper attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City in the late ‘60s before pursuing an academic career in philosophy. She received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1981 and worked as a tenured professor at several universities.

Piper has confronted the conflict between racial heritage and physical appearance in many of her projects, with media ranging anywhere from pencil to public performance. Piper, who is part-black, has addressed the experience of being an African American woman who can “pass” for white. In “Mythic Being” (1972-75), she dressed as a man, donning a costume of afro wig, dark sunglasses and mustache, topped off with a cigarette hanging indignantly from her lip. In this façade, meant to elicit negative stereotypes or perceptions of black identity, Piper would sullenly swagger around the city, riding the bus and walking the streets. 

In 1986, Piper created and disbursed “My Calling Card,” a series of business cards that, instead of her contact information, were printed with admonitions to men who tried to pick her up at bars, or white friends who carelessly and unknowingly made racist comments in her presence. In the video “Cornered” (1988), Piper begins by saying flatly to the presumably white viewer, “I’m black.” After a lecture on miscegenation laws and intermarriage, she then concludes that the white viewer is also black.

Many of Piper’s works have a conceptual underpinning, which may have been an influence of her relationship with founding conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, with whom she forged a friendship beginning in her twenties. She was invited to his dinner parties and helped care for his cat when he was out of town. In exchange, he served as her entrée to the New York and European art scenes.

She now lives in Berlin, where she runs the APRA (Adrian Piper Research Archive) Foundation and edits The Berlin Journal of Philosophy.

By Jennifer S. Li