Art

Looking Black

by

Since the early 1980s,
Keith Piper has brought an
activist’s social conscience
to emerging media. In this
retrospective, the 39-year-
old British artist refreshes his output of collagistic videos,
interactive CD-ROMs, and
installations by remixing it
like a DJ making new beats from old riffs.

Piper’s primary subject is the African Diaspora, which he investigates with all the rhetorical flourishes of an academic history painter. Piper invites this comparison by situating
an antique desk and leather chair to face a large framed video projection of François-Auguste Baird’s painting The Slave Trade (1840), in which a black man is surrounded by an unseemly group of white traders. A desktop computer allows viewers to replace the painting with Piper’s own art about slavery. A Ship (Called
Jesus)
juxtaposes Elizabethan art with southern gospel to
recall that the Virgin Queen launched the English slave trade. Slave auction posters and photos of lynchings are
set against family snapshots
in Go West Young Man, as a
quiet voice notes the ironies
of American freedom.

In other installations
dealing with surveillance
and sports, Piper suggests
that slavery is only the most
extreme of the myriad ways whites have sought to control black bodies. Two corner walls are filled with video projections of white crowds cheering black athletes. A woman’s voice suggests that this celebration of black athleticism is uncomfortably close to racist fantasies about the brute physicality of blacks. Subtlety is beside the point. This is an activist art, and while more lush and
complex than most didactic art, Piper is a man with a cause.

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