Imagine What It Was Like To Be Me

August 5, 2013

Pioneering conceptual artist Adrian Piper presents a faded black-and-white image of Trayvon Martin peering through crosshairs, as debates about racial profiling and systemic discrimination intensify in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Adrian Piper, Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013

Adrian Piper, Imagine [Trayvon Martin], 2013.

From the Editors:

In the fall of 1973, images of a “Mythic Being” started showing up in the ad pages of The Village Voice. This persona of indeterminate race and gender, who wore an Afro wig, a bushy mustache and sunglasses, turned out to be a character invented by the pioneering conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper. Acting as “The Mythic Being” in a series of photographs and performances by that name, Piper confronted racist and sexist stereotypes as she channeled texts from her own teenage journals, commented on political turmoil in accusatory language and cruised white women.

Piper’s incisive work challenges viewers to inhabit unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable identities. Often, she directly implicates onlookers in socially tense situations as she stares out from an image, as in her famous 1975 drawing with a speech bubble that reads, “I embody everything you most hate and fear.” Yet even as the artist deploys aggressive language, she enlarges our sense of what it means to be empathetic by inviting viewers to identify with those who are oppressed. Piper’s art resonates with the desire to speak personally and collectively in solidarity with victims of persecution, a desire seen today in online memes like “We are all Khaled Said” and “We are not Trayvon Martin.”

Forty years after Piper’s influential early works positioned her as a subject defiantly staring out at her audience, the artist presents a faded black-and-white image of Trayvon Martin peering through crosshairs centered on his face. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, which has intensified conversations about racial profiling and systemic discrimination, Piper’s Imagine [Trayvon Martin] offers an important injunction: rather than regarding Martin as a “mythic being”—the threatening black male in a hoodie—imagine, for a moment, that you could be him.