Keith Piper is a leading contemporary British artist, curator and academic whose practice focuses on social and political issues linked to institutional racism. He was a founder member of the BLK Art Group, a association of young Black art students based chiefly in the West Midlands. Since the late 1980s, he has been primarily associated with technically innovative work using multi-media elements such as slides, audio, video and computer software within an installation-based practice. In two of his projects within the last twelve years, he has intervened creatively in museum and archival collections to subvert dominant narratives about British culture and imperialism. 

Ghosting the Archive (2005)

This project emerged from a residency within the archival spaces of Birmingham Central Library. In 1990, the Archives acquired a large collection of photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives from the studio of local photographer Ernest Dyche, who'd worked in the Small Heath area of Birmingham from the 1950s to the 1970s. He had taken family portraits of many members of the Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities who'd recently immigrated to Britain, and Piper's own interest was heightened when he discovered photographs of his own parents' wedding in 1957 among the collection.

He chose to focus on the glass negatives, which had lain undisturbed in boxes since they were taken. No record had been kept of the clients' names, but these fragile and anonymous images captured precious memories. Piper photographed a number of the glass sides with a modern SLR camera against the harsh lighting of the contemporary space with its rows of archival boxes. They appeared as a ghostly presence at risk of fading away altogether but, by reversing the images, Piper created the impression of a spectral archive from which the figures of those mid twentieth-century families began to emerge, more vital than before. There's a very real sense in which the authority of the archive itself appears to fade as the lives of those portrayed are given greater prominence. A short video of the artist talking about his work can be seen here.

Lost Vitrines (2007)

This site-specific work was commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their exhibition Uncomfortable Truths to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1805. It was exhibited within the British Galleries at the museum, in which there were a number of eighteenth-century books in glass cases and on open plinths. These books were open on pages that displayed intricate designs for decorative and design objects, often alongside sketches of sites,  written observations and instructions. They all combined to create the sense of a period in which attention to detail, meticulous research and serious intellectual enquiry could be seen to underpin the development of British culture. 

Piper sought to expose the gaps and absences within the existing historical displays through the use of humour and parody. He created a set of volumes and related objects, faithfully reproducing the material appearance of the antique books and objects in a way which revealed their subversive intent only upon close inspection. A set of books and objects belonging to a fictional set of English slave traders and plantation owners were set out in one vitrine. Among the images shown in the 'faux' books displayed in this case were detailed illustrations of the intricate detailing on whip handles and diagrams illustrating the sequence in which manacles should be fitted to a captive's ankles. The objects included an ornate timber box strongly suggestive of a watercolour paint box, with a series of round tablets in a range of skin tones from very light to very dark. Alongside one side of the box was a list equating particular complexions with different types of labour, from managerial to heavy manual work. By this means, Piper parodied the way in which work was organised along racial lines on the plantations.

The books and objects in the second vitrine belonged to a fictional slave community rebelling against the plantation owners. Among them were an instruction manual containing details of how best to sabotage plant machinery; a guide to navigation for escaping slaves, and a 'micro-resistance tool kit' that references the small acts of defiance carried out by house slaves. The kit was housed in an ornate timber box that parodied the sewing boxes on display in the gallery. It contained instructions, tools for loosening domestic fittings and small phials of bodily fluids that could be added to the slave owners' food and drink.

For a short video about the exhibition, please click here


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