A few days after the convening’s closing, I sat with O’Grady in the kitchen of her niece’s North London home, all of us still in the Loophole of Retreat, metaphorically. From my own understanding, a good critical mass creates a sustainable and expansive chain reaction towards a shared project of liberation and upfulness. Critical mass does not trickle down from the top; instead the power sits in the palm of each hand. Take, for example, Leigh and O’Grady’s “Ask Me Anything About Aging”—a 2016 workshop, presented as part of Simone Leigh’s Psychic Friends Network residency at Tate Modern in 2016. With it, Leigh and O’Grady demonstrated the benefits of intergenerational word-of-mouth and sharing knowledge and strategy among women. But the symbolic gesture of Black women convening into a concentrated mass is only useful if we simultaneously discard the belief that a single proportion holds the key to all representational needs, emancipatory knowledge, and desires.
While O’Grady was born in Boston to middle-class Jamaican immigrants, it was not until the occasion of her 2021 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum that this fact was emphasized. She confessed to me: “In the catalogue I come out as a Diasporan artist. That took a lot of thought, you know. Am I going to do this or am I not? And what am I going to lose if I do this? I didn’t have a position that was clearly stated. I was just moving. I really found out that I couldn’t talk about being West Indian without somehow seeming to be claiming superiority. So, I sometimes feel like I’m a person who has not been allowed to have an identity. People would dislike me or the work because it wasn’t idealizing the Black family. Every time I was critical of my family, it was like I was saying something wrong. And so I finally had to come out as somebody who was fighting a different set of battles.”
In one early effort to address her West Indian and New England upbringing, O’Grady created her most personal work to date, Rivers, First Draft (1982). The one-time only performance took place in the seldom visited Loch, a northern section of New York’s Central Park. The script was redrafted until the day of performance, with a cast and crew of 20, most of whom, including a young Fred Wilson, were associated with the Black-owned gallery Just Above Midtown. After being rejected from the closed “studio of Black Male Artists,” three characters representing key stages of O’Grady’s life, named simply the Woman in Red, the Little Girl in a Pink Sash, and the Teenager in Magenta help guide each other down the stream of the Loch, aided by the Nantucket Memorial statue. In 2015, the work, which lives on as a 48-piece photographic installation, was donated to the Tate Modern by Eastman Kodak but shamefully remained taped up in a basement until 2022 because the deed of gift had not been signed and no one regarded the works highly enough to track the artworks down. But O’Grady persisted.
A few years prior to Rivers, at age 45, O’Grady made her first public performance work, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980–83), which remains the artist’s best known. Donning white gloves, she performed guerrilla invasions of art spaces, committed to agitating around class issues in the art world, in both white institutions and among fellow Black artists. When speaking about her pièce de résistance O’Grady divulged; “I felt that history would not be kind to me if I turned my back on Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, if I took the easy way out and made acceptable art […] Once you get inside, there’s this huge temptation to be easy…”