Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, eight-to-ten-inch 1981 pencil on paper drawing, is one of Adrian Piper’s most famous and most emotional works. Bearing a perfectly self-explanatory title it is just what the name says. The picture depicts Piper with her noise being broader, lips fuller than they actually are, and with a voluminous luxuriant Afro hairdo. The drawing is a seemingly unassuming attack on racial stereotyping. However, its ironic sub context is so obvious, that the picture cannot be treated as a plain work of art, but rather as a tool for searching the response to racism. There is an emotional exposure and immediacy in this direct portrayal of a female face. The model and the artist in one face is staring at you openly, with a naked straightforwardness and frankness in her gaze, which seems to be symbolic of how her art confronts society in everyday life.
Piper is the only figure in the portrait. It only includes her face and shoulders. Her body is strictly at the center of the surface. Her face is turned directly toward the viewer. She doesn’t have any distinctive expression on her face, while her face structure is rough and massive. The lines of the portrait are dark, heavy and thick. They define resolutely the contour of woman’s face shape and features. Being grouped together they form the look and feel of the surface. The texture is uneven, with woman’s skin being relatively soft yet not silky, and her hair being tough and frizzy. The only distinct spatial form illustrated in two dimensions and created by lines and shading is artist’s face, there is no other shape present in the picture. The background is plain white, which allows the viewer to ignore it completely.
The mass of the portrait is perfectly stable and open to the observer; it is represented by model’s facial features, which seem truly convex and opaque due to the effective use of shading and color change. The drawing is black-and-white, with black color being dominant, changing to grey and then to white. There are some brightly contrasting parts of the face that make the whole picture more expressive. The artist refrained from making the drawing more harmonic and soft through employing gradual color transformations. The space of the picture is implied, meaning two-dimensional, and is mostly occupied by the drawing, with few empty space left. Thus one observes mostly positive space; negative space simply fulfills the task of defining the boundaries of a central and sole shape. The picture is deprived of any allusions to time and motion, there is no reference to what the portrayed one is surrounded by. Seems like the woman is cut out of the reality, she exists out of time and space. There is not even a single suggestion of possible motion, her body is perfectly stable.
The elements in a present work of art are arranged symmetrically (formal balance), meaning almost each element in the picture is perfectly balanced against each other element. The emphasis is naturally made on Piper’s face. Eyes, nose and lips are especially stressed and detailed, which is probably because they actually represent the “exaggerated Negroid features”. The accent is made with the use of contrasting colors, intense, bright lines. There is no movement in the picture and thus there is no rhythm. The drawing is close in size to the natural face size, while its elements are perfectly harmonized with each other. However, Piper’s particular accent on exaggeration of specific features is due to the scale manipulations. She conveys an intricate idea through a picture by experimenting with sizes and proportions, which allow the viewer to perceive the concept the artist is communicating. The proportions are however perfectly natural.