Written by Holland Cotter
In the 1960s, some of us were taking drugs, mixing genders, and trying global religions to rid ourselves of what we saw as Western-style binary thinking, a worldview based on strictly good, bad, right, and wrong opposites. : white against black, heterosexual against homosexual, us against them. Five decades later, that thought still reigns in a blue-red nation, making the retrospective of Lorraine O’Grady’s career at the Brooklyn Museum a major corrective event.
The artist points out her own resistance to one or the other in the very title of her show: “Lorraine O’Grady: Both / And”. As, over a long career, he is now 86 years old, he has constantly molded his art on a different model, one of balanced pairs back and forth: personal and political; home and the world; anger and joy; solid ideas and a light formal touch.
Although the organizers of the show – Catherine Morris, the museum’s main curator; the writer Aruna D’Souza; and Jenée-Daria Strand, assistant curator, have braided their art through various galleries on four floors, we are not in blockbuster country here. Most of this survey could probably fit in a couple of carry-on bags. Most of his major works were one-time performances that now survive as photographs and handwritten notes.
Writing is an important element in your work. His first project, which dates back to 1977 and marks his debut as a visual artist, is a set of collage-poems made up of sentences cut out of numbers from The New York Times. Their presence, along with instances of footage (yellowish letters, lists, graphics, statements) makes the show a slowdown experience, a fiber-rich meal after a year of pandemic that favors visual appeal online.
And his art is the product of a textured personal story, with some straight lines. O’Grady was born in Boston, the second daughter of Jamaican immigrants. He grew up in Roxbury, a neighborhood of newly arrived Black, Irish and Jewish populations, located a few blocks from the main city branch of the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts. As a child, O’Grady spent a lot of time on both, and her initial interest leaned toward literature.
After graduating from college, where he majored in economics and languages, he embarked on an episodic career focused on writing. She worked as a researcher and translator for the Department of Labor in Washington, then moved to Europe to start a novel. In the early 1970s, he was in New York City contributing rock reviews to The Village Voice and teaching courses on Dadaism and Surrealist writing at the School of Visual Arts. His was a clearly “both / and” life, to which, in 1977, he added artistic creation.
This started almost by accident. After a medical procedure that year, she thanked her doctor with a homemade Valentine’s gift: a multi-page poem-collage with phrases she cut from the Sunday New York Times. Then, for herself, over the next six months she made two dozen. Three of the originals are housed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the fourth floor, where most of the show is installed. In this context, they seem emblematic of a life that, up to this point, was itself a collage of interests and influences.
The next logical step was to introduce himself to the professional scene. What he found were de facto levels of segregation. The predominantly white art world had no time for her as a self-described African American Caribbean. The world of black art, small, tight-knit, mostly male, had little room for her as a woman. The middle-class white feminist art movement granted her entry, but kept her at a distance.
Characteristically, her response was to attack rather than retreat, and she did so through art: guerilla-style performances in the person of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (“Miss Black Middle Class”), an aged but energetic and wide-mouthed beauty queen. who dressed in a stitched gown with formal white gloves and appeared, uninvited, at public art events.
Thus, in 1980, he opened an opening at Just Above Midtown, a totally blacklisted Manhattan gallery, shouting “Black art must take more risks!” He followed this up with an appearance at the opening of an all-white performance art show at the New Museum, where he challenged the institution’s claim to be an “alternative space” and declared that “an invasion” was imminent.
Miss Bourgeoise Noire’s white glove dress is on display in Brooklyn, as are a series of photographs documenting her appearance at the New Museum. Radiating great outrage and crafty humor, these now classic black feminist space claiming gestures feel years ahead of their time, just like a second great performance a couple of years later.
In 1983, after being told by a colleague in the feminist movement that “avant-garde art has nothing to do with blacks,” O’Grady decided to prove otherwise by participating in the Black American Day Parade in Harlem. For a play titled “Art is …”, he hired a float and artists to ride it, each with an empty gold frame. As the float moved up Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the artists descended onto the street and invited onlookers to pose for photographs within the frames, to be turned into art. The piece was a success. The people who took portraits, you can see in the photos, exuberant. (And it’s still a hit – it inspired a video produced by the 2020 Biden-Harris campaign.)
O’Grady was also in the float, smiling, watching this highly public piece of concept art unfold. However, my favorite work of his performances dates from a year earlier and was more private. Entitled “Rivers, first draft or The woman in red”, it is a kind of semi-autobiographical “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. Performed on a summer day, in a remote corner of Central Park, the piece symbolically recreates scenes from the artist’s life. An actor dressed in white plays his distant and flawless mother; another plays O’Grady as a studious and dreamy boy. And the artist, dressed in passion red, plays a version of her changing adult self. Traumas (romantic losses, political confrontations, even rape) are enacted, but the narrative, set to the rhythm of a medieval mystery play and captured in 48 color photographs, ends with a ritual walk through healing waters and whatever feels like a state of peace.
Family is the recurring theme of this artist. And “Miscegenated Family Album” (1980/1994), perhaps his most familiar work, is made up of paired images of two of them: Queen Nefertiti and her children depicted in 18th dynasty sculptures, and O ‘ Grady, Devonia, who died in 1962, leaving children behind, as seen in family photos.
On display in the museum’s third-floor Ancient Egyptian art galleries, the piece is a meditation on human connections (brotherhood, motherhood, aging) through time. But it is also an enduring history of racism: Western historians have traditionally viewed ancient Egyptian culture as too “classical / white” to be African, and too “African / black” to be European. O’Grady and his bi-racial family from Jamaica and Boston are assigned to a similar limbo, left floating between identities (African, American, African American, Caribbean) without being anchored to any in a world of one or the other.
The fact that they participate in all these identities, and that this is the source of their beauty and strength, seems to be the message of the only video of the exhibition, “Landscape (West / Hemisphere)”, made in 2010/2011. Installed in the Galleries of the Arts of the Americas on the fifth floor and set amidst the great land-grabbing New World paintings of Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, the video at first appears to be a continuous image of dense, whispering foliage. In fact, it’s a close-up of O’Grady’s “mixed race hair,” to borrow D’Souza’s description in the catalog. With its dark and light shades and colors and its curly and straight textures, it is an embodied example of “both / and”.
In addition to being co-curator of the retrospective, D’Souza is editor of “Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space, 1973-2019,” a book of the artist’s writings published by Duke University last year. It’s an absorbing read from start to finish, which is not surprising considering the artist’s roots in literature. And the dates of its content and those of the works in Brooklyn practically coincide, with the exception of the most recent piece in the show.
Titled “New Person Announcement (Performances to Come!)”, And dated 2020, it is a photographic series that features the artist in the form of a completely, in fact, invisible knight-errant, encased in medieval-style armor. The third floor. Does the armor indicate that you are ready for battle or a self-protective retreat? You see it and think “conquistador” (bad), until you see a miniature (good) palm tree sprouting from the hull, suggesting its Caribbean / Jamaican heritage. The precise meanings, such as the promised performances, have yet to be revealed. But clearly, something “both / and” is at work, conceived with the moral acuity, wit, and human bravery that have always set the standard that this artist takes to the field.