William Pope.L (1955-) is a Black American painter, photographer, and performance artist that is largely known for his pieces on interventionist public art. His work primarily focuses on issues of consumption, social class, and masculinity as they relate to race, and his execution with his body, external participants, and intense imagery aims to stimulate dialogue across various settings and public spheres.
In an interview posted on YouTube, he expresses his interest in celebrating differences and finding connections between social movements like the Black Power movement, feminist movement and gay rights movements through colors, sound, and movement.
Pope.L has an intensive body of work, and his most memorable pieces have been participatory interventional demonstrations that defy cultural stereotypes, break social barriers and mock comfortable certainties. In 1997, Pope.L performed his ATM Piece, which responded to the 1997 New York City ordinance that forbade panhandling within ten feet of an ATM machine. This policy addressed the issue of homeless panhandlers would open doors to ATM lobbies for people, seeking tips. He used an eight-foot length of Italian sausage to chain himself to the door of a 24-hour banking center across the street from Grand Central Station, wearing a skirt made of 80 $1 bills. He planned to detach them to give to the people for whom he opened the door, neatly inverting the panhandler/ stalwart citizen relationship (Houston Post, 2003).
Another project, eRacism, began in the late 1970s and includes over 40 endurance-based performances to date that consist of physical crawls, varying in context, length and duration. In one example entitled Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), Pope.L dressed in a business suit and crawled through the gutter in Tompkins Square Park, New York, pushing a potted flower with one hand. Most recently (2003), he and approximately 25 other participants crawled from the Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church in the Fourth Ward to the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Houston to call attention to the continuing development/destruction of Freedmen’s Town, the largest intact freed slave settlement in the country.
His public performance pieces are especially interesting because of his use of humor. Although the content of his work deals with serious social and political issues, Pope.L satirically enhances form, shape and movement to disrupt common practices. During the Houston crawl, he encountered men who were grooming the strips of grass along the path of the journey. He politely asked them to hold off while the party past, but the mowers refused. It becomes apparent that Pope.L challenges the action of working within someone else’s definition or rather accepting existing societal standards. Even in other works he blatantly speaks against culturally pre-conceived biases regarding race, class, sex or any other identification and considers these not as fixed definitions, but constantly negotiated and, hence, re-evaluated terms for an individual.
“He refuses to be defined in this way, and his work can be seen as a series of strategies to negotiate these cultural notions: the power of the vertical vs. the submission of the horizontal; the negative (or lack, one of his favorite expressions) of black vs. the positive (or having) of white; the rightness of possession vs. the wrongness of non-possession.” (Houston Post)
Much of his work speaks deeply to my interest in the artistic intervention of social issues such as educational inequalities. Although I did not readily identify educational reform to be a focus of any particular project, I did draw value on his concept of self-empowerment through interactive dialogue. This idea of self-empowerment speaks to redefining the social behaviors that perpetuate cycles of oppression and discrimination. Educational inequality can be viewed as a direct descendant of socio-economic injustices, and creative disruption to this epidemic can be resolved to redefine the role that the individual plays in society to effect a greater change. I think back to the dynamic of the Tremont Street and on how each side was segregated by an invisible line of class and race; is there some way to stage an intervention on the divided pathway to force the two sides to interact with one another? Can breaking this barrier help people to integrate within these two spaces and stimulate progressive dialogue?
A crawl to the Abyssinian Church in Portland, Maine on October 5, 2002 was led by William Pope. L. The Abyssinan, built in 1828, was the oldest African American meeting house in Maine and was an important safe haven on the Underground Railroad. Video recorded by Laki Vazakas.
He is quoted as saying of his own work:
“My work is not glamorous yet it is ambitious in its feeling. It seeks a visceral, bodily, material explanation for human desire writ large in human action…like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”
Pope.L attended the Pratt Institute (1975) and received a BA from Montclair State University (1978) and MFA from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University (1981).