Museum  April 28, 2021  Sheila Regan

Brooklyn Museum Presents Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York.

Lorraine O'Grady, Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire celebrates with her friends), 1980–83/2009. Silver gelatin fiber photograph, 7 × 9.31 in. (17.78 × 23.65 cm.) Edition of 8 + 2 AP. Detail.

Throughout her career, Lorraine O’Grady pounded on the door of the art world establishment, calling for systemic change. Now, at eighty-six, she is getting her due, with a heralded retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum called Both/And, which follows the comprehensive anthology of her writing, Writing in Space, 1973–2019, published by Duke University Press in 2019.

Photo Jonathan Dorado.

Lorraine O'Grady: Both/And, installation view, Brooklyn Museum, NY (2021).

Born in Boston to Jamaican parents, O’Grady’s career has been eclectic. She’s had jobs as a translator, music critic, and intelligence analyst for the American Government. Later she’d blaze a trail as a performance artist for a decade before being featured in her first solo visual arts exhibition, Body is the Ground of My Experience in 1991, presented at the INTAR Gallery in New York City, when O’Grady was fifty-seven.

One of the exhibition’s diptychs proved controversial. On one side, an interracial couple embraces as they float above two children frolicking below, a gun lying nearby. On the other, a man wearing medieval armor, with a skull for a head, fondles a Black woman’s breast. Her eyes are rolled back as if dead, or uninterested.

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates.

Lorraine O’Grady, Body/Ground (The Clearing: or Cortez and La Malinche. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me), 1991/2019. Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Baryta pure cotton photo rag paper. 40 h x 50 w in. 

In writing about the piece in 1993, O’Grady meditated on the negative reactions about the work from the art world. “I don’t like it,” one curator told her. “That’s not the way sex is supposed to be.” He didn’t take the diptych for his exhibition.

"This piece has been misinterpreted frequently and misunderstood,” said longtime friend Robert Ransick, who assisted O’Grady on the show after being her student at the School of Visual Arts. Speaking with O’Grady in a public online discussion hosted by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Ransick noted O’Grady retitled the diptych in the 1990s, from The Clearing, to The Clearing: Or, Cortez and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me.

Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

Lorraine O'Grady: Both/And, installation view, Brooklyn Museum, NY (2021).

In the conversation, O’Grady said she showed the work at the Bunting Institute at Harvard. The Radcliffe Quarterly only discussed the three other works, not O’Grady’s. She sensed that people were uneasy at the topic of miscegenation, thinking that she was trying to “maybe shove people’s noses into it or something,” she said. “But actually I was using this miscegenation to talk about an extremely important and under-theorized historical situation, which was the world of the Western Hemisphere in which miscegenation was a fundamental formative force, and that we were still dealing with it.”

The incident mirrored other moments when O’Grady’s work was unappreciated. “There seems to be these delayed receptions, these delayed understandings,” Ransick says in an interview with Art & Object. “Then it gets brought into the center and people then celebrate it.”

One of those cases, he said, was O’Grady’s Mlle. Bourgeois Noire performances between 1980 and 1983. Wearing a dress made of 180 pairs of white gloves, and carrying a whip, O’Grady would show up unannounced, first at the Black avant-garde gallery Just Above Midtown, where she demanded more risk-taking by artists, and later at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The New Museum was presenting Personae, an exhibition of only white performance artists. “Now is the time for an Invasion!” she shouted.

Photo by Bjorg Magnea.

INTAR opening, O’Grady with Lilith Dove and Robert Ransick.

The work would anticipate the spirit of the Guerilla Girls, of whom she was a member for a period.

“I came out as Mlle. Bourgeois Noire, Miss Black Middle Class, five years before the Guerrilla Girls were formed,” O’Grady said during the MCAD talk. "At that time, what sense would it have made to ask, ‘How many Black women are you showing here?’ There were no black women showing. There were no Black men, or hardly any Black men.”

Mlle. Bourgeois Noire was a way to disrupt the invisibility of Black avant-garde artists, including herself. “I had no patience for the invisibility that had been drowning me at this point for forty-five years,” she said.

Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Lorraine O'Grady, Art Is . . . (Girl Pointing), 1983/2009. Chromogenic photograph in 40 parts, 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.64 cm.) Edition of 8 + 1 AP.

O’Grady tackled that same disparity in the art world in 1983, with a work called Art Is. Taking place in Harlem’s African American Day Parade, O’Grady orchestrated an interactive work that would “frame” the Black parade-watchers, as if they were themselves art.

“Here was an audience, viewers, and potential creators that was not being taken into account by the white art world,” she said.

O’Grady often revisits older works, even as she develops new concepts. “The sharpening of her artistic capacity becomes increasingly more in alignment with the complexity of the ideas that she's talking about,” Ransick says.

In other words, she’s just getting started.

About the Author

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a freelance journalist and arts and dance critic based in Minneapolis. She regularly writes about dance for the Star Tribune, in addition to writing for local and regional publications such as City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, and the Southwest Journal. Her byline has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtForum, Artnet News, Bomb, LitHub, High Country News, as well as the Washington Post and The Lily.

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