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Art HERstory: Lorraine O’Grady

Lorraine O'Grady

Lorraine O'Grady

October 29, 1929 is known as Black Tuesday for a reason. It was the last day of light America saw for over a decade. The candle of hope was blown out. The glitter of pocket change disappeared. The illumination of enlightenment began to dim. The 1930s and the financial hardships the Great Depression brought made Americans question their morals, values, and ethics. This internal conflict was consistent regardless of race, class, or gender. Growing up in the racist and poor society of the 1930s caused the same conflict in a young Lorraine O’Grady. Born to Jamaican parents in 1934, Lorraine immediately took notice of the contrasting values present in American society. At a young age she knew she wanted to think outside of the opaque box placed around her creativity. She rebelled. She had no idea the mess she would eventually make would be meaningful and beautiful.

A newspaper poem from the collection "Cutting Out the New York Times"

A newspaper poem from the collection "Cutting Out the New York Times" (1977)

“It was never meant to be ‘art work.’ It was something that I was doing and the distance of it becoming art was something strange and exotic to me.”

Photo from "The Black and White Show"

Photo from "The Black and White Show" (1983)

Inspired by the works and performances of Eleanor Antin as her alter ego Eleanora Antinova, O’Grady created a Sasha Fierce of her own. Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire made her debut in June1980. O’Grady crashed an art party in Tribeca in protest of the “African-American Abstraction” exhibit.

O'Grady as her alter ego Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire (1980)

O'Grady as her alter ego Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire (1980)

Miss Black Bourgeoisie’s uniform consisted of a gown and cape made of 180 white gloves and a cat-of-nine-tail whip. The whip, used on plantations during the days of slavery, was made of macramé and freckled with chrysanthemums.

Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire's costume

Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire's costume

“The whip was basically a metaphor for external oppression and the gloves were a metaphor for internal repression. Her point in doing these performances was to protest the still very segregated nature of the art world at that time.”

Photos from "Flowers of Good and Evil"

Photos from "Flowers of Good and Evil" (1998)

Part of her protest included her giving the flowers away one by one while asking party guests to help her “lighten her heavy bouquet.” When the whip was rid of blossoms, O’Grady would proceed to beat herself with the whip while shouting poems.

The poem recited at Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie Noire’s debut was:


No more boot licking

No more ass kissing.

No more buttering up.

No more pos…turing

Of super ass…imilates.


O'Grady speaking at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Gallery on March 22, 2007.

O'Grady speaking at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Gallery on March 22, 2007.

This lady definitely has some serious cojones!

Photo from "Miscegenated Family Album"

Photo from "Miscegenated Family Album" (1980)

MBN was later put to rest as O’Grady relied on her academic background in art, literature, history, and social science to inspire the rest of her career. Her next endeavor, titled Miscegneated Family Album, connected O’Grady’s family background and the history of the ancient Egyptians. She chose to display this parallel via photographs. Black and white photos of her family members were placed side-by-side with photographs of the statues of powerful ancient Egyptian royalty. It was an exhibition of Black power and beauty from the past and present.

Photos from "Miscegenated Family Album"

Photos from "Miscegenated Family Album" (1980)

All of O’Grady’s work from that point on explored the black female’s role in various settings. 1982’s Rivers, First Draft was a performance that explored the tug-o-war African-American women endured regarding identity. The constant masks Black women wore were exposed and explained. Art Is…dissected the relationship between unconventional African-American art and the norms in the Black art world.

O'Grady speaking at a press event

O'Grady speaking at a press event

“Entertaining the audience was not a primary concern. After all, wasn’t it about contributing to the dialogue of art and not about building a career?”

Photo from "Art Is..."

Photo from "Art Is..." (1983)

Lorraine O’Grady is still active in the art community today. She has expanded her creative abilities to combine photography and videography. She insists this fusion of artistic mediums is “better than sex” and debuted her masterpiece, Persistent, in 2007.

Still frame from "Persistent"

Still frame from "Persistent" (2007)

Persistent is the result of the closing of Davenport Lounge, a multi-ethnic club in San Antonio, Texas. The landlord of the building claimed the club was “attracting the wrong crowd.” O’Grady heard of the club’s closing and decided to commemorate the owners, operators, dancers, and clubgoers by video recording 12 of the club’s dancers on green screen. She then projected the emotional movements of the dancers on the walls of the renovated club. It was her way of allowing the spirits of the dancers to live on. She made them ghosts in artistic motion.

A video of the Persistent project is available for view

Throughout her life Lorraine O’Grady has walked in many pairs of shoes. She had been a college student, rock critic, government employee, cocktail waitress, and translator familiar with 8 languages before the found her calling in art. I’m sure she never thought she would go from volunteering for Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Coalition and translating Playboy into Spanish to becoming an influential African-American jack-of-all-artistic-trades.

Lorraine O’Grady’s website

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