From Quite Struggle to Raging Battle
From Quite Struggle to Raging Battle
Historically, the issue of race has been a divisive one in America: the American Civil War was primarily a battle over the matter of enslavement of blacks by some whites. Today, there is still much to be mended in regards to issues of the past, and when it comes to race relations, the situation remains extremely divisive because America reflects a white face in its national mirror. The issue of the American racial divide, specifically, what is black and what is white is explored by Jacob Lawrence in his painting Migration of the Negro, No - From Quite Struggle to Raging Battle introduction. 49 (1940-41) and by Adrian Piper in her installation Cornered (1988).
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Jacob Lawrence’s piece is a product of the Harlem Renaissance: a turning point in America for the numerous black artists who came together and changed the face of the world through their art—art that was undeniably not white (Gates and McKay, “Harlem Renaissance,” passim). As its name implies, Migration of the Negro, No. 49 is part of larger body of work called The Migration Series which includes “over thirty panels chronicling the struggle, strength, and perseverance of African Americans in search of a better life in the North” (Cole). This piece is representative of Lawrence’s style: a unique blending of vivid colors and abstractions that capture important elements of black history.
Adrian Piper’s installation Cornered (1988) is a mixed media installation piece, the focal point of which is a viewing screen that runs a looped video featuring the artist discussing the issue of mistaken identity; specifically, the fact that she is often mistaken for a white woman which negates her black identity and speaks to the presumed whiteness of America. While not specifically representative of an art movement, it is certainly an example of contemporary artwork. Piper’s piece is inspired by her life, her politics, and her world experience. Further, it challenges its viewers to assess their actions and reactions and invites debate and dialogue.
One could assess the works of Lawrence and Piper as essentially different in terms of their form, but doing so in terms of their content would be remiss. Jacob Lawrence works in a more traditional manner: Migration of the Negro, No. 49 is painted on a panel and was designed to hang on a wall while evoking thoughts and conversations from those who take the time to view the piece. In contrast, Adrian Piper’s Cornered is neither painted nor designed to hang. It takes up an entire corner anywhere it goes, and while the focus is the video, its external pieces play just as an important a role in creating the “cornered” feeling Piper discusses in her video. It is also far less passive than any painting. Lawrence’s piece is divided vertically by a painted separator reminiscent of the line delineator seen at a ticket booth. On the left side of the painting one sees two tables with restaurant patrons enjoying their meals while on the right side, one sees three tables with patrons. The “division” is clear: on one side sit the white customers while on the other side sit the black clientele. This is where the similarities in the work of the artists is clear: while Lawrence has depicted the separation between the races in paint, Piper depicts the separation in the narrative within the frame of her installation: “I’m black [. . .]. If you feel that my letting people know that I’m not white is making an unnecessary fuss, you must feel that the right and proper course of action for me to take is to pass for white [. . .and. . .] this kind of thinking presupposes a belief that it is inherently better to be identified as white” (Piper). The timeframes and mediums may be different, but the struggles and observations of Lawrence and Piper are decidedly the same.
America has historically been entrenched in a battle over racial (in)equality, and the feelings engendered by those who are not white but must live in a predominantly white America range from indifference to anger. The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point for black artists: they began to push against the white majority while establishing their voices in the creative realm. What was begun during the time of Jacob Lawrence allowed Adrian Piper to demand her racial identity—her blackness—be acknowledged while challenging those who dared call her demand an act of rebellion. The passivity of the black movement taking place during the Harlem Renaissance is reflected in the passive nature of Lawrence’s Migration of the Negro, No. 49: it allows one to interact by choice—much like the political state of whites and blacks interacting at that time. In contrast, the contemporary acting out of the more radical black equality movement is demonstrated by Adrian Piper in Cornered, a video installation that demands attention and challenges the notions held by all people as they walk about in a primarily white America.
Cole, Mark. “An American Epic in Patterns and Colors.” Columbus Museum of Art. Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series from the Phillips Collection. 2004. 11 Dec. 2006.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay. “Harlem Renaissance: 1919-1940.” Gates and McKay. Gen. Ed. The Norton Anthology: African American Literature. New York: Norton, 1997. 929-936.
Lawrence, Jacob. Migration of the Negro, No. 49. (1940-41). Fields of Reading: Motives for Writing. 7th ed. Ed. Nancy. R. Comley and Frannie B. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 231-233.
Piper, Adrian. Cornered. (1988). Fields of Reading: Motives for Writing. 7th ed. Ed. Nancy. R. Comley and Frannie B. Smith. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 231-233.
—. Cornered. (1988). 10 Dec. 2006. < http://www.unlv.edu/faculty/pkane/ART230/soldier/