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Investigating Identity

Discover how artists mine the concept of identity—and often challenge it—in their work.


The Body in Art

Discover how artists represent and use the body to investigate their relationships to gender and identity.


Constructing Gender

Explore how artists examine the relationship between gender and society.


Intersecting Identities

Artists often address their multiple, intersecting identities in a work of art.


An individual’s identity consists of multiple, intersecting factors, including gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality. In fact, some prefer to use the plural word “identities,” emphasizing that identity is fluid and shifts throughout one’s life.

A central aim of the feminist art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States was to gain recognition for women artists. However, many felt that, during its early years, the feminist art movement privileged white women artists. Cuban-born American artist Ana Mendieta, writing about Howardena Pindell’s work, explained: “As women … came together in the feminist movement with the purpose to end domination and exploitation of the white male culture, they failed to remember us.”1 The struggle for equality in the art world extended not only to women artists but also to artists of color.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States underwent a period of tumultuous cultural tensions that included the AIDS crisis, right-wing conservative social and economic policies under President Ronald Reagan, rapid gentrification, and increasing urban crime. Identity politics—the political debates around shared cultural characteristics such as race, class, and religion—became a way for people to address these issues. Many artists, such as Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass, and Lorna Simpson, created work in response to their multifaceted identities, suggesting that the problems society faces are a result of intersecting forms of discrimination toward various social groups.

Yolanda M. Lopez and Moira Roth. “Social Protest: Racism and Sexism,” in Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994. p. 155

The organizing around shared cultural characteristics such as race, class, and religion.

The shared cultural identity of persons from a particular national, linguistic, or geographical group.

A classification system that organizes humans into large and distinct groupings based on appearance or geographical lineages. The concept of race has been criticized for being a simplistic, socially constructed categorization that has led to racism, or the unequal and unfair treatment of people based on race.

The socially constructed identity assigned to a person as a result of their sex.

The belief in and advocacy for equal legal and social rights and conditions for women.  

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

The characteristics that determine one's self.

The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.

The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

Multimedia

Questions & Activities

  1. Identity Factors

    An individual’s identity is made up of many different factors.

    Consider. What is important to you? How would you describe yourself? Write ten words that are central to your identity. These words can be anything, including social categories such as ethnicity and gender, adjectives describing your personality, issues or beliefs you care about, and your favorite pastimes and activities.

    Create. Make an abstract self-portrait! Create a collage that represents the different aspects of your identity.

  2. Most Wanted

    To make the Runaways series, Glenn Ligon asked friends to write description of him as if they were reporting a missing person to the police.

    Consider. Work with a partner. Without sharing, write a list of words to describe yourself on a sheet of paper. Choose five words to describe your appearance and five words to describe your personality. Fold the paper and set aside.

    Write. Now write “missing” ads for each other, describing physical appearance as well as personality features.

    Compare. Trade the descriptions you wrote for each other. How does your first list of words compare to the description your partner wrote? What surprised you?