Lorraine O’Grady’s iconic series, Miscegenated Family Album (1980/1994) is a photo-installation of 16 cibachrome diptychs that originated from her 1980 performance piece Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, first presented at Just Above Midtown. The images from this “novel in space,” as the artist describes the work, were selected from the 65 image pairs first presented as part of Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline. The original performance addressed mourning and reconciliation through O’Grady’s live action and the accompanying projected slideshow that compared images of O’Grady’s older sister Devonia with the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, along with photographs that included their respective families.
O’Grady visited Egypt two years after her sister Devonia died. In Cairo in her twenties, she found herself surrounded for the first time by people who looked like her. While for most people this is a common occurrence, it was something new for O’Grady, who had not previously experienced feeling surrounded by people that resembled her, neither in Boston nor Harlem. While walking the streets of Cairo, the loss of her only sibling became confounded with the image of a larger family gained. When she returned to the States, she began painstaking research focused on Ancient Egypt, especially the Amarna period of Nefertiti and Akhenaton. In her words, “I had always thought Devonia looked like Nefertiti, but as I read and looked, I found narrative and visual resemblances throughout both families.”
For Miscegenated Family Album, O’Grady recuperated the pejorative word “miscegenation,” coined in 1863 and then used for the post-Civil War laws making interracial marriage illegal — laws not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967. In this strongly feminist “novel in space,” O’Grady attempts to resolve a troubled relationship with her only sister Devonia, who died early and unexpectedly, by inserting their story into that of Nefertiti and her younger sister Mutnedjmet. Building on remarkable physical resemblances, the paired images span the coeval distance between sibling rivalry and hero worship through “chapters” on such topics as motherhood, ceremonial occasions, husbands and aging. At the same time, in O’Grady’s view of Ancient Egypt as a “bridge” country, the cultural and racial amalgamation of Africa and the Middle East which flourished only after its northern and southern halves were united in 3000 BC, both families, one ancient and royal, the other modern and descended from slaves, are seen to be products of nearly identical historic forces. For this reason, O’Grady’s vision of showing Miscegenated Family Album alongside displays of Egyptian artifacts and sculptures became the ideal context in which to exhibit this set of images that drew uncanny aesthetic parallels, while weaving together narratives that connected personal stories with historical events.