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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.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

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

Art seeking to challenge the dominance of men in both art and society, to gain recognition and equality for women artists, and to question assumptions about womanhood. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist artists used a variety of mediums—including painting, performance art, and crafts historically considered “women’s work”—to make work aimed at ending sexism and oppression and exposing femininity to be a masquerade or set of poses adopted by women to conform to societal expectations. While many of the debates inaugurated in these decades are still ongoing, a younger generation of feminist artists takes an approach incorporating intersecting concerns about race, class, forms of privilege, and gender identity and fluidity. Both feminism and feminist art continue to evolve.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.

Non-representational works of art that do not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernable subject matter.

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?