John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

Adrian Piper

American, b. 1948

Adrian Piper’s work can be disturbing, thought provoking, and heartbreaking. As a conceptual and performance artist, she uses a politically charged, in-your-face approach that makes many viewers feel uncomfortable, forcing them to confront their own prejudices and/or preconceptions. In the early 1970s, she gained widespread notoriety when she dressed up as an African-American man—the “mythic being”—in order to expose racial, class, and gender stereotypes. A trained philosopher, she often uses language (written and spoken) as a means for exploring how people communicate their feelings.

Piper also explores issues of personal identity and social boundaries. Using the antiquated nineteenth-century social convention of calling cards, Piper adopts a passive-aggressive approach to showcase how racism and sexism are intrinsically harmful. One of the two “calling cards” in the Indiana University Art Museum’s collections (the brown one) uses misperception of her race (she is a light-skinned African American) to directly confront anyone who utters a racist remark in her presence. The white card thwarts the presumption of men that she is available simply because she is unaccompanied. She says she handed these cards out in the above situations and has since exhibited them for viewers to take and use. While not precious or valuable in the traditional sense, they clearly represent her ideology. The focus in these mass-produced objects is not on craft, but on the ideas behind their production.         

Born in Harlem, Piper began her career as a visual artist—studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts and City College, before pursuing degrees in philosophy at Harvard University. As a distinguished analytic philosopher, her research has focused on meta-ethics and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics. An encounter with the conceptual works and writings of Sol LeWitt encouraged her to explore the implications of language through art. While she continued her academic pursuits as a philosophy professor at Wellesley College and through numerous scholarly books and articles, Piper began to present her ideas in a public realm through performance art, sequential photography, and video. By “theatricalizing” painful memories, Piper intentionally removed the situation from a personal realm to address universal moral issues.

Recognized as a leading conceptual artist, Piper was the only African American woman artist invited to participate in the groundbreaking exhibitions Concept Art (1969) in Germany and Information (1970) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She remains an influential (and controversial) figure in the contemporary art world, due, in sad part, to the continued relevance of her biting observations on the effects of racism.

Romare Bearden, The Family

Adrian Piper
American, b. 1948
My Calling(Card) #1, 1986
Offset lithograph on brown paper; published by Angry Art
Image/sheet: h. 2 x w. 3 1/2 (5.1 x 8.9 cm)
Gift of John P. Bowles, IU Art Museum 2006.558

Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope