William Pope.L (b. 1955, Newark, NJ, USA) works with an array of media including performance, sculpture, drawing, found objects, installation, and photography. Pope.L’s background in theatre has been fundamental in his approach to performance art as he turns the city streets into his “stage” where he performs a character whose identity he creates. During his performances, Pope.L uses basic, every day materials from the detritus of pop culture, ranging from mayonnaise, to pop tarts, to a capeless Superman costume. These props add humour to Pope.L’s works despite the provocative themes his art evokes.

“I believe there is something aesthetic about being socially engaged, being involved in your community… There’s a beauty to making work that interacts with people, and I think there’s a way to describe and talk about it — and to do it well.”*

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pope.L began his ‘crawl’ performances in the 70s, a set of ongoing street interventions where the artist extraneously crawled the urban landscape. In particular, Pope.L’s The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001 – 2009), involved the artist donning a capeless Superman costume as he crawled the entire 22 miles of Broadway street in New York City. The artistic feat was documented and presented at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, but for the artist, the physical documentation was a fused vertebrae in his spine. To date, Pope.L has performed over forty group and solo crawls. The crawls are an artistic and political intervention, as it is the artist’s intent to bring hypervisibility to the black male body by inverting what the artist notes to be the ‘horizontality and verticality’ embedded in society. The concept brings into conversation the notion of the American Dream where anything is possible. Pope.L attempts to shift from moving vertically up to seeing things from a horizontal perspective, to be on the level of the impoverished. Pope.L reflects, “suggesting that just because a person is lying on the sidewalk doesn’t mean they’ve given up their humanity. That verticality isn’t what it’s pumped up to be.”* Behind the choice to wear a capeless Superman costume, Pope.L expresses that “Superman cannot fly anymore, just like the rest of us trying to make it through the day. Here, the heroic act is to give up his verticality, to submit to life as it is.”*

In a set of c-prints on fiber silk paper collectively titled Servants, Pope.L re-photographed 19th century photographs sourced from the public domain. First exhibited in 2015, the images depict black caregivers with their white charges in seemingly ‘normal’ settings. While the images on their own present an obvious and poignant reflection of race and class, Pope.L has inserted himself into the scenes to emphasize the absurdity of inequality present in every image. Servant, Artist, Master depicts a white child riding a donkey accompanied by a black child on foot. The donkey’s head bears the stern, arguably annoyed, gaze of Pope.L forcing the viewer to ask themselves, “would I feel like an ass in this situation?” In a different rendition of the same image titled Servant, Master, Donuts (2015) a grouping of Pope.L’s faces lay on the ground functioning as a pile of excrement from the animal. The artist interjects the past as if to call “horseshit” on the history of ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’.

The Table (2015)
c-print on fiber silk paper
23 x 14 in (58.4 x 35.6 cm)

In The Table (2015) a white toddler sits in a highchair at a Pope.L-faced table while a black child stands opposite, bracketing the wide-eyed stare of the artist. The white child is seated, ready for a meal while the black child is standing, with no seat at the table, presumably ready to feed the white toddler. Pope.L’s incredulous gaze at the camera acts like a neon-flashing stop sign shouting, “Hello? Are you seeing this?!” And more so, like the sardonic pile of faces defecated behind the donkey, Pope.L’s presence reads as a time-warp; the racial inequality in the photograph is not a thing of the past, but a self-portrait of the present.

While Pope.L’s face is inserted into the image, it is also superimposed on top of it, masking the violent histories of America. With Servants, Pope.L interrogates the physical structures in which black bodies have been depicted in white spaces. The spaces occupied by black children in the presence of white children are not spaces they share, but ones with strict borders, territories of privilege and status that are delineated by skin colour. To both highlight and undermine this narrative, Pope.L injects a not-so-subtle caricature, an expressive interloper that asks us to re-evaluate quotidian images of America, to peel back the masks they wear and conduct our own investigation.

Pope.L’s mix of slapstick and instinctive poignancy allow us to encounter these images as the illustrative history of oppression in America, while accepting that their narrative has tendrils that extend beyond the limits of the photograph’s borders. In each image of Servants Pope.L presents a doctored vision of the past that surgically emphasizes the fatal legacy of America’s perpetual racial discrimination. He produces a radical alteration of archival material that draws our attention to the deep, visceral reality of the ‘normal’ America.

“We live with the notion that, from very early on in American history, Americans have tended not to do things in the official way. And the spirit of my work is very much about that. My job in a way is to remind Americans about what self-image they want of themselves.”*

Servants is currently on loan for the exhibition MASK: In Present -Day Art on view at the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland from September 1, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/02/t-magazine/pope-l-artist.html

* “America’s Friendliest Black Artist,” p. 71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3246348?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

* “America’s Friendliest Black Artist,” p. 71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3246348?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

* “America’s Friendliest Black Artist,” p. 69. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3246348?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Artwork images courtesy of the artist © Pope.L