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Fri, 09.21.1934

Lorraine O’Grady, Artist born

Lorraine O'Grady

*Lorraine O'Grady was born on this date in 1934. She is a Black artist, writer, translator, and critic.         

Life and work            

O'Grady was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Jamaican parents Edwin and Lena O'Grady, who helped establish St. Cyprian's, the first West Indian Episcopal church in Boston. Attracted to the form and aesthetics of the "high church" of nearby St. John's of Roxbury Crossing, O'Grady was influenced by the aesthetics of that experience, of the rituals of Roman Catholicism. In 1955, O'Grady graduated from Wellesley College, majoring in economics and minoring in Spanish literature.  

She pursued a master's degree in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop before becoming an artist in 1980. Before becoming an artist, O'Grady worked as an intelligence analyst for the Department of Labor and State in D.C., a professional translator, and a rock critic.  O'Grady lives and works in the Meatpacking District of New York City. Working in conceptual art and performance art that integrates photo and video installation, she explores the cultural construction of identity, particularly that of Black female subjectivity, shaped by the experience of diaspora and hybridity.

In the early 1980s, O'Grady created the persona of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, who invaded art openings wearing a gown and a cape made of 180 pairs of white gloves, first giving away flowers, then beating herself with a white studded whip, which O'Grady often referred to as, "the whip-that-made-the-plantations-move." She would often shout in protest poems that railed against a segregated art world that excluded Blacks from the world of mainstream Art and which she perceived as not looking beyond a small circle of friends. Her first performance as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was at the Linda Goode Bryant's Just Above Midtown gallery in Tribeca.

O'Grady curated exhibitions, such as The Black and White Show in 1983 at Kenkeleba House in Manhattan's East Village. The concept for this event was to show the work of 30 Black artists alongside 30 white artists. Beginning in 1991, she added photo installations to her conceptually based work. In 1983, she choreographed a final participatory performance as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire called Art Is..., which consisted of a parade float she entered in the annual African American Day Parade in Harlem. It has become known as "O'Grady's most immediately successful piece." The performance encouraged onlookers to consider themselves Art and drew attention to racism in the art world.

Published for the first time more than three decades later, O'Grady's photographs from the performance continue to celebrate Blackness and to claim avant-garde Art as a Black medium.  At a 2007 International Artist-in-Residence at Artpace, O'Grady's series was included in a show celebrating female-identifying artists. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art argued that the event made an impact on the Black community by describing how there were people everywhere shouting things like "That's right. That's what art is. We're the art!" and "Frame me, make my art!". From 2015 to 2016, Art Is was featured at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Assistant Curator Amanda Hunt asserted that O'Grady's performance "affirmed the readiness of Harlem's residents to see themselves as works of art." She was honored with a Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award in 2017.

Four of O'Grady's Art Is... photographs were featured in an Artpace exhibit in January 2020. In 2020, she worked on a performance focusing on Knights. The performance is titled Announcement of New Persona (Performances to Come!). It debuted at the Brooklyn Museum. In September 2022, O'Grady was profiled at age 88 in an article in The New Yorker Magazine.

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