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.” She would wear this outfit whenever she would crash 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 and in the fiction program at Iowa Writers Workshop. She had a varied career working for the U.S. government. She also worked as a translator, essayist, and rock critic for “Rolling Stone Magazine.” This diverse background led to her eclectic art making when she decided to become an artist in her forties.
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. 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.