Keith Piper

Bedford Hill Gallery

Keith Piper is part of a vital constituency of British-based artists of color, a group that by no means speaks with a homogenous voice. These artists, in fact, are engaged in a complex debate on the nature and possible directions of alternative arts from within a plurality of cultural experiences and a diversity of esthetic strategies. Piper, who often identifies the author of his work as “Black Art by Machines,” is a political activist. Yet despite his dependence on the use of familiar sociopolitical subject matter, his vocabulary is considerably more subtle than the plaintive rhetoric of ’70s protest art. Through his slide/audio installations, he expresses an interest less in addressing the established art world than in speaking directly to nonwhite audiences. This is not to say that Piper necessarily advocates a separatist policy for artists of color—although the attitudes of most institutions toward black visual arts are hardly likely to discourage such a policy—but that foremost on his agenda is the search for a renarration of the black subject. His work is directed toward an affirmation of black identities and is strategically aimed at the fallacies of mass-media racist rhetoric and its subliminal effects on black consciousness.

In the installation, Father, I have done questionable things, 1989, one wall of the gallery functioned as a screen for the projection of cool gray-blue images of British riot police. The images were charged with an ominous immediacy. On approaching the screen, one’s own silhouette became caught up in the violence of the scene—a laconic warning, perhaps, that any identity may be effaced in a state where freedom of expression is at stake. A second projector showed golden-toned images portraying existing relations of power: a montage sequence juxtaposed news-media portrayals of black figures with white icons, from Ron and Nancy Reagan to Michelangelo’s David. One caught a sense of the frustration of a people struggling to realize their aspirations and creative potential against a dominant rhetoric that persistently speaks as if they were somehow less than human. The failure of Western society to address its responsibility in creating the black diaspora and its resulting complex psychosocial effects was poignantly suggested by two TV monitors mounted on their sides. Imageless transmissions bore the inscriptions “God said, Whence comest thou?” and “And Satan replied, From going to and fro in the world.”

What gave this work its power and sense of unity was the beautifully orchestrated relationship between the projections and the soundtrack. Here were not the easily assimilable rhythms of contemporary black music, but haunting chants and murmurs, echoes of an African cultural memory, of different voices and alien bodies—affirmative or threatening depending on the cultural position from which one was listening. If it is true to say that visual representations of people of color are so negatively overdetermined in Western culture that they cannot in themselves easily be reclaimed by their owners, then Piper’s cross-media strategies allow a possible way out of this impasse. Indeed, meaning arises as the event that takes place in the space between word and image, image and sound—in the narrative process itself. It is here perhaps that the strength of Piper’s work lies; in its differentiation between history as an imposed master narrative, and tradition as the expression of a community’s witness to the lived experience of events. The phrase “We know the truth,” which appears among these images, could also read, “We do not forget.”

Jean Fisher