The significance of Lorraine O’Grady and Tracey Rose’s new show, an exhibit at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg of curated selections of their works from different periods in their careers, cannot be overstated. Titled Rose O’Grady, the show is a gift to artists, to South Africa, to the world. It is the first time that Lorraine O’Grady will exhibit in Africa. It is the first time that there will be an intergenerational and international dialogue between two important black female conceptual artists with performance-based practices. It is the first time that Rose’s dynamic work, presented on her home turf following her important retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, will be contextualised with that of an especially inspirational American pioneer.
What makes this truly unique is that O’Grady and Rose have multi-disciplinary practices, including video, photography, text, and installation, with performance at the core. The confluence of identity issues and contemporary life concerns are what have made performance as an artistic practice immensely relevant for them as they explore the binary complexity of their identity and address new agendas, completely unrestrained by tradition and convention. They both possess a profoundly deep understanding of and research in literature and art history, including Renaissance old masters, modernism, conceptual and performance art, and especially feminist art of the 1960s-1970s. Their work exists at the nexus of postmodern art movements, political discourse, sociological investigation, and historical narrative. O’Grady and Rose’s conceptual frameworks—which are deeply process driven, it typically taking years to develop a concept for a work—are centered on the development of characters and personas. These personas give physical form to their ideas as they create a variety of individuals or metaphorical beings: some are personal, some stereotypical, others historical. The personas serve to embody, transform, and use these women’s life experiences in order not to be held back, rendered powerless by them. Their aim is also to catalyse society, to clear the mental and moral barriers, allowing art to lurk in the midst of things, allowing the message to hang in the air, allowing it to permeate our collective conscious.
While the work spans over 30 years, one of the most striking aspects of this special collaboration, despite differences in age and geography, is the evolutionary pattern, a continuum that exists between these two artists. These bold, fearless, aggressive works are deeply and profoundly connected. O’Grady certainly had almost no references who shared a common life experience as her own when she began to make work. Rose and artists of her generation and those even younger, whether in South Africa or in the Caribbean or in the United States, absolutely do: there is O’Grady, Suzanne Cesaire, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, and David Hammons, among many others. What this show most importantly does is to convey that this brave work is not made in isolation and that it is overpoweringly relevant.
The exhibit presents the artists’ important early works, including performance stills from O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoisie Noire (1980-1983), and Rose’s Span I and Span II (1997) and Ciao Bella (2001). It also features photographs that reference and subvert public performance traditions or “parading” like the African American Day Parade in Harlem, New York City and the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival. O’Grady and Rose will each show thrilling new work in the show.
So starting this May, the initial rumblings of what ultimately will be a seismic shift in the global contemporary art world, will emerge as a proposition—indeed, a new persona, a merging of minds, aesthetics, voices, and experiences. She is Rose O’Grady.
Text by Adrienne Edwards