drawing of a woman with handwriting saying self-portrait exaggerating my negroid features, Adrian Piper, June 21, 1981

Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, Adrian Piper, pencil on paper, June 21, 1981.
Adrian Piper, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Indicting the White Gaze: Adrian Piper’s Search for an Unmarked Selfhood

My thesis argues that artist, writer, and philosopher Adrian Piper manipulates the tools of white supremacy, specifically a convention I define as “the white gaze,” to affect the viewer’s own method of looking in America. In opposition with Black Feminist scholar Audre Lorde’s 1979 doctrine “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Adrian Piper works specifically within the house of the master — in the form of a career-spanning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — to conduct an experiment of destabilization, rather than dismantling. Despite decrying both academic and art world institutions, and exposing the insidious nature of white supremacy at all levels of civic life, Piper intentionally engages with the Museum of Modern Art, an institution known for its historical disregard of Black artists and Black life. Piper’s engagement with the museum’s socially-fraught history represents a “strategic occupation,” as Art Historian Legacy Russell writes, which allows the artist to receive access to an audience that requires her interventions the most, one which is overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and male. From this positionality, Piper manipulates the gaze in order to destabilize the viewer’s perception of race in this country, working to also demonstrate the museum’s complicity in state-sanctioned violence against Black people.

My thesis comprises three chapters that look critically into Adrian Piper's visual and written works. The foundation of this work is her visual production and includes evidence from her memoir, autobiography, personal essays, and interviews. The first chapter focuses on Adrian Piper’s self-portraiture. My analysis examines how illusory renderings of Piper’s ambiguous and “unmarked” face and body have the ability to alter the ways in which individuals interpret race and identity in this country, establishing the bias inherent to the white gaze. In referencing scholarship from Anthropology, this chapter illuminates the racism of photography as a medium, exposing both its technological and social role in upholding the perspective of the white supremacist project. In the second chapter, I claim that Adrian Piper implements the visual culture of criminalization, prompting the viewer to question the validity of their own gaze. In fact, I argue that Piper appropriates symbols of deviance and disability, pulling on conventions of policing such as documentation, inscription, and “the mug shot” to semiotically represent the relationship between criminality and racial bias. The last chapter argues that the Museum is a critical component of the state apparatus, complicit in the most violent iteration of the white gaze: the incessant surveillance of Black life. Implementing the scholarship of Foucault and Bennett, I examine how the Museum space approximates a panoptic prison, writing that Piper’s works participate in a discourse of carcarel aesthetics. Like all Black Americans, the artist is a victim of the surveillance state — she was even listed on the United States Suspicious Travelers Watch List. Thus, this tension between the gaze, the viewer, and the surveillance state serves as a microcosm of the ways in which the forces of white supremacy work to restrict the conditions of Black life.