Adrian Piper’s Performance of Race
and the Moral Question of Racism
Adrian Piper once rebuked an art critic who declared, “it is cru-
cial to know that . . . Piper is a black artist who can easily ‘pass’
for white,” by responding, “‘black’ and ‘white’ are among the
terms my work critiques.”1 This would seem to preclude Piper’s
art from being easily categorized as African American, yet that
is exactly how most of it has been studied, largely because Piper
has used herself and her own experiences with racism as the
raw material for much of her art. For example, in her video in-
stallation Cornered, which she first presented in 1988, viewers
watch as Piper tells them, “I’m black.”2 Over the course of the
video, however, the decision to call one’s self black becomes a
moral issue rather than a simple matter of genetics or parent-
age. In the process, Piper casts the possibility of racial identity
into doubt. Why don’t most art critics notice?
Since before 1972, when she first confronted matters of race
directly in her Mythic Being series, Piper has always marked the
distinction between herself and the role she performs as art-
ist, theatricalizing it. While she uses personal content—her ex-
periences—in some of her work, these anecdotes are carefully
chosen and presented tools used to make ideas concrete rather
than to make her personal life and emotions the subject of her
art. Nevertheless, art historians and critics frequently charac-
terize Piper as an angry black woman whose work blames view-
introduction
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