Born in New York City in 1948, Adrian Piper is a philosopher/conceptual artist/performer/theorist mixed-race woman who edits a journal in Berlin and teaches Funk lessons. Her work focuses around issues of xenophobia, gender, and race. Through street performance, installation art, pastiche pieces, multimedia, and theory, Piper meditates on her own African American heritage, and the ways in which this makes her an outsider in her own society. Her piece Calling Card (1986-1990) in which she would sit in bars and wait for men to approach her or for someone to make a racist remark, to then hand them a card explaining her ethnic background or her lack of interest, reveals the politics of race and gender, and of how the “other” is objectified.
This piece is especially resonant to me because it speaks to many of my own questions and insecurities. Being South American, race and ethnic background has always been part of my social and political spheres. Peru is a racist country marked by social and economic class divisions, where the cholos are deemed despicable and inferior, and the white pitucos cross shantytowns to get to their luxurious beach houses where discrimination thrives. Being an outsider to this society, I was not subject to their discriminations (Colombians are tanned and exotic, not cholos.) And so I see Piper’s work with astonishment, work that does not rely on protests and violence, work that lives in the grey areas of art, street performance, and mixed race. Her race, her gender, and her time allowed for her art, and so her political agenda is heard and communicated efficiently. Piper looked inside, into her heritage and her identity, to voice the struggle of a generation, of a social class, of a race. And why is it that we look at this, sigh, and say “we have nothing to fight for?” When our own identity, if we look closely, is flooded with politics, history, heritage, and contradiction. And it should be voiced, danced, painted, and screamed for everyone to see. Or should it?
Coming from countries where race dictates social class but it is also the hardest thing to pinpoint, where Colombian dark skin is not the same as Peruvian dark skin, where society prides itself of being half European and where indigenous tribes still pray to the Sun, I fail to identify my own culture, my own race, my own identity. And we speak of folk, and we define it as that which has not been decontextualized and I think, “Have I been decontextualized? Am I folk?” what are the politics that my skin carries today, here, in this place? What should my calling card be saying? What is the dance I should be teaching? Adrian Piper makes funk political and creates choreography of insurrection, of struggle, of emancipation. She advocates freedom, call and response, and ownership of one’s body. I am inspired and depressed, flooded by theory and detached from the present, but eager to keep searching.