Lorraine O’Grady (b.1934) combines strategies related to humanist studies on gender, the politics of diaspora and identity, and reflections on aesthetics by using a variety of mediums that include performance, photo installation, moving media, and photomontage. A native of Boston, MA, her work involves her heritage as a New Englander, and daughter of Caribbean immigrant parents. After she graduated from Wellesley College in 1956 studying economics and Spanish literature, she served as an intelligence analyst for the United States government, a literary and commercial translator, and rock music critic. Turning to visual arts in the late 1970s, OʼGrady became an active voice within the alternative New York art world of the time. In addition to addressing feminist concerns, her work tackled cultural perspectives that had been underrepresented during the feminist movements of the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, O’Grady created two of her most currently recognized bodies of work, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980–83), a guerilla performance taking place in the heart of New York City’s downtown art scene, and Art Is . . . (1983), a joyful performance in Harlem’s African-American Day Parade. In Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, O’Grady’s extravagant persona responded to the Futurist dictum that art has the power to change the world and was in part a critique of the racial apartheid still prevailing in the mainstream art world. Wearing a costume made of 180 pairs of white gloves from thrift shops and carrying a white cat-o-nine-tails of sail rope from a seaport store that she had studded with white chrysanthemums, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle-Class) was an equal-opportunity critic. She gave both timid black artists and thoughtless white institutions a “piece of her mind.” Under this persona, O’Grady visited both the bourgeoning Just Above Midtown black avant-garde gallery and the then recently opened New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Art Is . . . embodied O’Grady’s desire to fully connect with the audience. The performance was undertaken in a spirit of elation which carried over through the day; unlike previous works which had critiqued the art world from within, this piece went outside to be about life and art. O’Grady used a 9 x 15 foot antique-styled gold frame mounted on a gold-skirted parade float that moved slowly up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, framing everything it passed as art. Today, the work is a compelling reminder of the politics and power of art making, as well as the joy of experiencing art.
Concerned with the lack of African-American and other representation in the Feminist movement of the 1970s, O’Grady critiqued the effort’s inability to “make itself meaningful to working-class white women and to non-white women of all classes.” O’Grady has continued an ongoing commitment to articulating “hybrid” subjective positions that span a range of races, classes and social identities. In addition to her work as a visual artist, she has also made innovative contributions to cultural criticism with her writings, including the now canonical article, “Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity”.
Lorraine O’Grady’s work has been the subject of numerous one-persons exhibitions, including From Me to Them to Me Again, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art, GA (2018); Family Gained, Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, MA (2018); Lorraine O’Grady: Initial Recognition, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Monastery de Santa María de las Cuevas, Seville, Spain (2016); and Lorraine O’Grady: When Margins Become Centers, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (2015). Her work has been included in countless group exhibitions, including Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom (2017), traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American, Bentonville, AK (2018), Brooklyn Museum, NY (2018), The Broad, Los Angeles, CA (2019); de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA (2019), and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (2020); and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965—85, Brooklyn Museum, NY (2017), traveled to California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2017), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY (2018), and Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston, MA (2018). Her work is represented in innumerable public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, MA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. She has been a resident artist at Artpace San Antonio, TX, and has received numerous other awards, including a 2015 Creative Capital Award in Visual Art, a Creative Capital Grant, the CAA Distinguished Feminist Award, a Life Time Achievement Award from Howard University, an Art Matters grant, and the Anonymous Was A Woman award, as well as being named a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow. Most recently, she was honored with a Skowhegan Medal (2019) and the Francis J. Greenburger award (2017). In addition to her work as a visual artist, she has also made innovative contributions to cultural criticism with her writings, including the now canonical article, “Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity.” A book of her collected writings, Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space, published by Duke University Press, will be released in 2020.