Lorraine O'Grady

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire

1980-83/2009

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire leaves the safety of home (New Museum Performance), 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire smiles, she smiles, she smiles, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire continues her tournée, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire removes the cape and puts on her gloves, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
50h x 40w in (127h x 101.60w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire removes the cape and puts on her gloves, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
50h x 40w in (127h x 101.60w cm)

Untitled (Crowd Watches Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Whipping Herself), 1980-83/2009

Silver gelatin fiber print

40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Beats Herself with the Whip-That-Made-Plantations-Move), 1980-83/2009

Silver gelatin fiber print

50h x 40w in (127h x 101.60w cm)

Untitled (Crowd Watches Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Shouting her Poem), 1980-83/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 60w in (101.60h x 152.40w cm)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Shouts Out Her Poem), 1980-83/2009

Silver gelatin fiber print

50h x 40w in (127h x 101.60w cm)

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire celebrates with friends, 1980-1983/2009
Silver gelatin fiber print
40h x 50w in (101.60h x 127w cm)

Description

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, O’Grady’s first public performance, remains the artist’s best known work. The persona first appeared in 1980 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) 1955 was an equal-opportunity critic. She gave timid black artists and thoughtless white institutions each a “piece of her mind.” Her first invasion of an art opening unannounced was of Just Above Midtown, the black avant-garde gallery. Her second was of the recently opened New Museum of Contemporary Art.

But beyond her guerrilla invasions of art spaces, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was a state of mind. Even when not in costume and when using her own name, the political aspect of O’Grady’s art would be under her inspiration for a four-year period. MBN “events” were surreptitiously indicated when O’Grady pinned white gloves to her clothing.

Though the performances were a “failure” — the art world would not become meaningfully integrated until the Adrian Piper and David Hammons exhibits of 1988-89 — Mlle Bourgeoise Noire had a mythic aftermath. Two images, of her beating herself with the whip and of her shouting the poem, were widely reproduced without an explanatory context, becoming empty signifiers that added to the mystification and misunderstanding surrounding the work. But then in the mid-90s, the costume was purchased by Peter and Eileen Norton. And finally, in 2007, it was positioned as an entry point to WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the first-ever museum exhibit of the originating period of feminist art.