Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Women and Photography

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ADRIAN PIPER'S MYTHIC BEING: I EMBODY

Adrian Piper. "Mythic Being: I Embody," 1975; Courtesy of John Weber Gallery, collection of the artist.

Adrian Piper (b. 1948) is a first-generation conceptual artist and analytic philosopher who explored the intersection of moral philosophy with social and ethno-racial identities. Although an interdisciplinary artist, she frequently turned to photography to create discrete photographic objects and to document her provocative performances that exposed the gaps between visual perception and ethno-racial identities. A light-skinned, bi-cultural woman of unclear ancestry–her mother was Jewish and/or Caribbean and her father was of indeterminate ancestry though recognized as having some African lineage–she identified as black; however, many mistook her light skin tone for whiteness, and Piper capitalized on this ambiguity in her work. Born and raised in Manhattan and active during one of the most racially tense periods in New York's history, Piper understood the power and influence of photographs on public perceptions. She also understood that captions are one of the ways that audiences make sense of the photographs they see in newspapers and often accept the captions as accurate context for the images; therefore, pairing her images with seemingly incongruous captions would compel audiences to spend more time with the image and the message it transmits. She particularly understood the impact of exhibiting her racially ambiguous self-portraits with texts in which she confronts viewers with her blackness, sometimes in direct and belligerent ways, and other times in the most opaque ways. An example of this is her seminal project of the 1970s, "The Mythic Being," a durational performance (that is, performance art of a length beyond the typical 90 minutes) for which she masqueraded as the Mythic Being, a black man, and behaved antisocially in public spaces. A core element of the performance was a photo-text collage she published weekly in The Village Voice. Each week she used the same photograph, a portrait of the Mythic Being, but changed the confession in the thought bubble, which was transcribed from a journal she kept as the character.

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