This work is made up of a series of fourteen panels combining black and white photographs with printed and handwritten text. The panels examine multiple historical, social and cultural readings of the black male body and investigate the production of gendered racial stereotypes during and after slavery. Piper has combined fragments of historic images relating to the slave trade and the abolitionist movement in Britain, stills from Hollywood films, family snapshots and photographs of lynchings and black male bodybuilders, presenting different modes through which the black male body has been commodified. The printed text repeats the injunction of the title and lists the potential origins of these powerful visual associations, such as the slave auctioneer’s hammer and the anthropologist’s looking glass. The handwritten text presents Piper’s personal negotiations of the iconic media he appropriates, often through letters to ‘Dada’: ‘I began to picture myself as they (hoped) to see me.’
In a catalogue essay for an exhibition of his work at the Rochdale Art Gallery in 1991, Piper stated that in Go West Young Man he ‘attempted to trace [the] history of the commodification of the black male body, from its reduction to cargo in the hold of the slave ship, to migration, to the terror surrounding the Black male presence in contemporary society’ (Piper 1991, p.10). Collectively, the texts and images in the panels raise questions about the function of identity, nationalism, history and inheritance, and the ways in which these concerns have long been invested in the black body. In each panel, the brutality of the ‘middle passage’ of slavery is related to Piper’s experiences of racism, violence and judgment in the present. The association of family photographs with images of slaves and lynched young black men in the American South is suggestive of Piper’s desire to find an historic precedent for contemporary racial discrimination. This sense of disjunction, and the subsequent desire for parallels, is also suggested by the combination of personal photographs and anxious handwritten messages with stills from Hollywood films, such as Melvin van Peebles’ comedy-drama Watermelon Man (1970), in which a white family man wakes up to find his skin has turned black, much to his wife’s horror.
Go West Young Man marks the point at which Piper moved away from painting towards photographic, video and digital technologies. This work is representative of Piper’s increasing political concerns and his involvement with the Blk Art Group, a collective of art students from the West Midlands, of which Piper was a founding member. The group was established in 1982 and was committed to stimulating interest in art by black artists in Britain. In addition to his work as a visual artist, Piper has worked as a curator, writer and researcher, allying him with the politicised documentary work of the Black Audio Film Collective (see Tate T12862–T12864).
Eight panels from Go West Young Man were reproduced in print in the second issue of the journal Third Text in December 1987. In this publication, the panels were accompanied by a statement from Piper on the experience of being a black artist in Britain in which he outlined his concerns with ‘researching and re-evaluating notions of creative practice which have been formerly marginalised and obscured, and fusing them with the prevailing currents of contemporary practice’ (Piper 1987, p.53). In 1996 Piper adapted this work into a film, also titled Go West Young Man.
Keith Piper, ‘Body and Text’, Third Text, vol.1, no.2, December 1987, pp.53–62.
Keith Piper, Step Into The Arena: Notes on Black Masculinity and the Contest of Territory, exhibition catalogue, Rochdale Art Gallery, Rochdale 1991, pp.10–11.
Lizzie Carey-Thomas (ed.), Migrations, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2012.