Now 86, Lorraine O’Grady receives her proper due with her first museum retrospective, “Both/And” and two new books.
At the age of 45, Lorraine O’Grady emerged as an artist fully formed when she made her first public appearance as “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” in 1980 at Just Above Midtown, the center of New York’s Black avant-garde run by revolutionary gallerist Linda Goode Bryant. Dressed in a handmade gown comprised of 180 pairs of white gloves, a sparkling tiara, and beauty queen sash, O’Grady entered the gallery bearing flowers and a cat-o’-nine-tails whip.
The flowers were for the audience, the whip she saved for herself in a performance that decried the respectability politics that consumed the Black American middle class desperately striving to find some semblance of protection from the horrors of systemic racism. But O’Grady, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, knew such ideas were illusions at best. As she whipped herself, she spoke verse, her poem ending in a firm declaration: “Black Art Must Take More Risks!”
O’Grady wasn’t wrong, and she wasn’t afraid – even if it meant her work would go without proper recognition for more than 40 years. Now 86, the artist is finally being given her proper due with her first museum solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled Both/And and which just ended, and the publication of two collections of her work from Duke University and Dancing Foxes Press.
A New Paradigm
Like a cat with nine lives, Lorraine O’Grady has lived to tell the story, her work a testament to the complexities of being an intellectual who understands questions will rake us farther than answers ever could. As one of three Black women in Wellesley College’s 1955 class of 500, O’Grady has been the consummate insider-outsider throughout her life. She worked as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government, a rock music critic for Rolling Stone, and a literature instructor for the School of Visual Arts before taking the plunge into art, and creating a space for Black women in a world where they have been by and large misrepresented, marginalized, or erased.
The title "Both/And" is O'Grady's celebration of acceptance and inclusion. In O’Grady’s worldview, multiplicity is the space in which possibility exists, while certainty is simply a dead end. By abandoning the divide and conquer paradigm of “either/or,” O’Grady creates space in which we can explore binaries co-existing in a continuous state of flux, which requires us to consider that balance is a form of grace all its own.
As a pivotal figure in an early group of performance artists, O’Grady used the camera tool to bear witness to her work and ultimately helped to elevate photography within the realm of contemporary art. “Both/And” showcases O’Grady’s most important happenings and in doing so reveals the ways in which photography has been an integral part of her practice for years. O’Grady’s singular mix of pomp and politics would have all but disappeared had she not understood the role photography played in the recording, dissemination, and preservation of her art.
In both series "Mlle Bourgeoise Noire" (1980) and "Art Is..." (1983), O’Grady combines performance with photography to center Black artists and audiences in the historically exclusionary art world. For Art Is…, O’Grady staged a collaborative photography project during Harlem’s annual African-American Day Parade, wherein she and a team of women dressed in white held up ornate gold frames in front of the faces of spectators, effectively framing them as works of art unto themselves.
“The parade idea came from wanting to expose the avant-garde to the largest number of black people I could find at one time—that was it. My first thought was to just put artworks on the float and let people LOOK at art,” O’Grady recounts in a 2015 interview with Amanda Hunt featured in Writing in Space. “A woman had recently said to me that avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with Black people. That was so infuriating to me. It’s where the whole idea for the piece came from—to do something that would prove this woman wrong, a piece about art in front of a million people. Of course it didn’t end up with them looking at art. They were more making the art themselves.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
“Lorraine O”Grady: Both/And,” through July 18, 2021, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY 11238, USA.
Lorraine O’Grady : Both/And, published by Dancing Foxes Press/Brooklyn Museum,$40.00.
Writing in Space, 1973-2019, edited by Aruna D’Souza, published by Duke University Press, $28.95.