The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear
In this monochrome, drawn-on photograph, a shadowy figure emerges from the darkness wearing dark sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, captioned in the top corner with the phrase, "I embody everything you most hate and fear." The figure in the image is Piper, in drag as her male alter ego 'Mythic Being', whose identity she assumes through wearing a fake moustache, afro wig and sunglasses.
Piper created the character of "Mythic Being" over a period of two years between 1973 and 1975. Disguising herself as a light-skinned and working class black man, Piper wandered around the streets of New York reciting various mantras that were lifted from her teenage diary, including the caption seen here, and various other angst-ridden phrases including, "surrounded and constrained", and "God please give me the strength to withdraw - I can't be hurt anymore - I've been hurt too much. Please help me preserve myself". Her performances were documented through photographs, drawings and videos, including this work. Many of the different forms of documentation and accompanying information (such as museum wall labels) also tracked public reactions to her character and his behaviour.
Piper's black male character deliberately embodied a marginalised, outsider position, which drew attention to the difficulties faced by people who share those aspects of identity in their everyday life. Yet Piper also found in the role a certain emancipation, as writer John P. Bowles explains: "Suspended between difference and identification, the Mythic Being becomes, in Piper's account, a paradoxical figure of liberation. Dressed as a man of uncertain race, the artist could act in ways that, as a black woman, she was expected not to". Piper elaborated on this in a description of her behaviour, writing, "I swagger, stride, lope, lower my eyebrows, raise my shoulders, sit with my legs wide apart on the subway..." In breaking out of her usual persona Piper highlights the restrictive ways women, and particularly African American women, were expected to behave. The tension that comes from Piper's assumption of this role, plays against both her gender and the way she was usually perceived by people of different ethnicities in her day-to-day life. This pioneering break with prescribed gender and racial norms and assertion of her own right to define how she is perceived influenced a raft of later artists, including Cindy Sherman's theatrical photographs, Sarah Lucas' "ladette" posturing and Glenn Ligon's powerful text art.
Oil Crayon on Gelatin Silver Print