Lorraine O’Grady is an artist who works with installations, performance, photography, photo montage, video, and texts that address the African diaspora, racism, and the stereotyping of African American women. Her artistic career came later in life after a career in writing and journalism.
In 1980, Lorraine O’Grady made a landmark performance in her first public art work. She made a dress entirely out of long white gloves, which she wore for her satirical piece “Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire” at Just Above Midtown (JAM) a hub of the Black avant-garde. She wore this outfit whenever she crashed art gallery openings and events as a persona ironically titled, “Miss Black Middle Class.” She did this to draw attention to the racism present in the art world and as an indictment of the white institutions who needed to take notice of African American institutions. In 2007, “Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire” was to appear again and serve as the entry point to “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the first major museum exhibition of this art movement.
Born in Boston to West Indian parents, O’Grady studied at Wellesley, one of three Black women in a class of nearly 500, and graduated after taking time off for the birth of her son. She studied in the fiction program at Iowa Writers Workshop. She had a varied career working for the U.S. government. She also ran a translation agency in Chicago, personally handling seven languages. In 1973, she taught English at the School of Visual Arts while writing essays and rock reviews for “Rolling Stone Magazine.” This diverse background and working at SVA led her to produce her eclectic art, and she decided to become an artist when she was more than 45 years old. She contributed to a race-themed issue of the feminist journal Heresies in 1982, not happy that the editorial collective was almost all-white. Later she spent several years as a member of the Guerrilla Girls, the masked art-world feminist activists.
O’Grady’s “Rivers, First Draft,” which was an exploration of her artistic identity, was performed and photographed in the Central Park Loch area on August 18, 1982. This piece was conceived of as a “collage-in-space” with different actions taking place simultaneously on the two sides of the stream and nearby hill. O’Grady described its structure as a “three-ring circus” in which multiple narratives competed for attention to unite two different heritages – Caribbean and New England – and three different ages of herself and her family. The full documentation of the performance consisted of forty-eight images of a dreamlike quality. O’Grady drew inspiration from Haitian Vodun.
O’Grady’s work has been shown in group shows in the 2010 Whitney Biennial; the Paris Triennial and CAM Houston in 2012; and CAAM, Los Angeles in 2017. She will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. Her work is in the permanent collections of MoMA New York; Fogg Museum at Harvard; Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum; and LACMA.