The New York Times, Sunday, March 30, 2008
A dicussion of black avant-garde art in the context of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency of the United States.
By HOLLAND COTTER
IN the 1970s the African-American artist Adrian Piper donned an Afro wig and a fake mustache and prowled the streets of various cities in the scowling, muttering guise of the Mythic Being, a performance-art version of a prevailing stereotype, the black male as a mugger, hustler, gangsta. . .
Recently a new kind of Mythic Being arrived on the scene, the very opposite of the one Ms. Piper introduced some 30 years ago. He doesn’t mutter; he wears business suits; he smiles. He is by descent half black African, half white American. His name is Barack Obama.
On the rancorous subject of the country’s racial history he isn’t antagonistic; he speaks of reconciliation, of laying down arms, of moving on, of closure. He is presenting himself as a 21st-century postracial leader, with a vision of a color-blind, or color-embracing, world to come.
Campaigning politicians talk solutions; artists talk problems. Politics deals in goals and initiatives; art, or at least interesting art, in a language of doubt and nuance. This has always been true when the subject is race. And when it is, art is often ahead of the political news curve, and heading in a contrary direction. . . . Today, as Mr. Obama pitches the hugely attractive prospect of a postracial society, artists have, as usual, already been there,
surveyed the terrain and sent back skeptical, though hope-tinged, reports. And you can read those reports in art all around New York this spring, in retrospective surveys like “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” currently at the P.S 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, in the up-to-the-minute sampler that is the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in gallery shows in Chelsea and beyond, and in the plethora of art fairs clinging like barnacles to the Armory Show on Pier 94 this weekend.
“Wack!” is a good place to trace a postracial impulse in art going back decades. Ms. Piper is one of the few African-American artists in the show, along with Howardena Pindell and Lorraine O’Grady. All three began their careers with abstract work, at one time the form of black art most acceptable to white institutions, but went on to address race aggressively.
In a 1980 performance video, “Free, White and 21,” Ms. Pindell wore whiteface to deliver a scathing rebuke of art-world racism. In the same year Ms. O’Grady introduced an alter ego named “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” who, dressed in a beauty-queen gown sewn from white formal gloves, crashed museum openings to protest all-white shows. A few years later Ms. Piper, who is light skinned, began to selectively distribute a printed calling card. . . .
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.