Lorraine O’Grady (b.1934) combines complex notions 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 installations, moving media, and photomontage. A native of Boston, MA, her work involves her heritage as a New Englander, and daughter of parents from Caribbean and Irish backgrounds. After she graduated from Wellesley College in 1954 studying economics and literature, she served as an intelligence analyst for the United States government, a literary 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, which were underrepresented during the feminist movements of the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, O’Grady created two of her most notable bodies of works, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980–83), a guerilla performance taking place in the heart of New York’s downtown art scene, and Art Is . . . (1983), a joyful performance in Harlem's African-American Day Parade in September 1983. In Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, O’Grady takes on an extravagant persona under the Futurist dictum that art has the power to change the world and was in part created as a critique of the racial apartheid still prevailing in the mainstream art world. Wearing a costume made of 180 pairs of white gloves from Manhattan thrift shops and carrying a white cat-o-nine-tails made of sail rope from a seaport store and 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 the bourgeoning Just Above Midtown black avant-garde gallery, then the recently opened New Museum.
Art Is . . . embodies 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 was to be about life and art. O’Grady The 9 x 15 ft. antique-styled gold frame mounted on the gold-skirted parade float moved slowly up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, framing everything it passed as art. Today, the work is a compelling reminder of the politic and power of art making, and the joy in experiencing art itself.
Concerned with the lack of African-American 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 maintained 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 exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Biennial (New York); Prospect.2 New Orleans; the Museum of Modern Art (New York); Manifesta 8 (Murcia, Spain); Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg). Her work was featured in the landmark exhibition, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, organized by Connie Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Her work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and numerous private collections. She was a resident artist at Artpace San Antonio, TX. O’Grady has received numerous awards, including Matters grant and United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow.