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Lorraine O'Grady, photographed by Iris Torres-Gatherer. Silhouette of curly haired person in front of an octagon shaped light.

Issue 005 Winter 2023 Profiles

Lorraine O’Grady, Through the Loophole and Back

"[Black women] are no longer standing still, defending a position, we’re going forward. This movement is unstoppable.”

By Rianna Jade Parker
Original photography by Iris Torres-Gatherer

Lorraine O'Grady, photographed by Iris Torres-Gatherer, 2022.

In October 2022, over 600 Black women gathered in Venice, Italy and sat dutifully over three days in an elaborate hall at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, on the occasion of US Pavilion artist Simone Leigh’s three-day long symposium Loophole of Retreat: Venice.  

Organized by practitioner Rashida Brumbray to platform the creative responses of Black women cultural workers, makers, and thinkers across nations and generations, the symposium spanned five directives: maroonage, manual, magical realism, medicine, and sovereignty. Our souls were rocked and emboldened by over 50 presentations of deeply emotive expressions of selfhood and kinship. In the moment and even more so retrospectively, it is apparent to me that a twenty-first century Black Feminist biennale was convened on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon, and this intelligence and sensitivity was art in itself.

The final day of Loophole closed with a peer-to-peer conversation between Simone Leigh and conceptual artist and writer Lorraine O’Grady, who thanked Leigh for being “the other side of the same coin.” In 2018, at the inaugural Loophole of Retreat, hosted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, O’Grady shared her belief that we, Black women, had reached a “critical mass.” Reflecting upon those words four years later, she noted that they felt “like a lifetime ago, because we are no longer afraid of being lonely.” She continued, “We are connected. We are no longer standing still, defending a position, we’re going forward. This movement is unstoppable.”

O'Grady in her studio, photographed by Iris Torres-Gatherer, 2022.
O'Grady in her studio, photographed by Iris Torres-Gatherer, 2022.
A long piece of wood inscribed with the name "Lorraine O'Grady"

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…”

Photo of Lorraine O'Grady in her studio, sitting in front of a box tv screen that shows an image of Angela Davis.
O'Grady in her studio, photographed by Iris Torres-Gatherer, 2022.

O’Grady, however, has never opted for easy, and since the ’90s, her contributions to art history and criticism have proved equally canonical. “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” (1992/94) is regarded as the first article of cultural criticism on the Black female body in western art, and with it O’Grady made one of the strongest arguments against the misuse of the nameless and disempowered to accentuate white womanhood, beauty, and value.Poison Ivy” (1998), was published in Artforum after the Harvard University panel “Black Like Who?” on stereotypes in contemporary art, in response to the early critiques surrounding the artist Kara Walker. 

As a thinker who has long explored the artist’s biographical and performance statements as forms for reassessing one’s function and intention, O’Grady has made it difficult to misrepresent her. She has long preferred to orient her live practice as “writing in space” as opposed to performance art, and the  praxis she has articulated remains relevant as-ever, 40 years later: 

I was never able to accommodate to the linearity of writing. Perhaps I’m too conscious of the stages I’ve lived through and the multiple personalities I contain. The fact is, except for the lyric poem, writing is the art form most closely bound to time; but to layer information the way I perceived it, I needed the simultaneity that I could only get in space. […] In its most profound sense, “performance” is a matter of artists shifting dimensions, putting themselves at risk by changing their accustomed relation to space/time. […] I’d like to discover new lands of narrative, lands whose shape I won’t be able to imagine until I get there. If there’s any time left, I’ll try to explore and map the territory.

My own percipience was not encouraged or nurtured until my early twenties, the core of my aesthetic concerns and burgeoning critiques of Black visual cultures would go largely ignored until an audience who looked like me, slowly formed. I have since found myself in a continuum of Black women artists who make direct and stealthy efforts not to reinscribe the ideals and thoughts perpetuated by the establishment and society at large. I conceive of O’Grady within such a continuum, one of Jamaican women—like Grace Jones, Adrian Piper, and Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett—who have made evocative, exploratory artworks and staged events using their bodies, voices and other materials to tantalize or provoke a chosen audience, at home and in the diaspora. With varying proximities to the region, the audacity and frankness of their contributions to Black and Caribbean visual and sonic literacy has contributed to the aforementioned critical mass. Through alternative realities and unknown portals, Black women artists interpret and produce cultures that generate reflexivity and live in the continuum. But no cohesion, no matter how large-bodied, will remain intact without an ideological architecture that is malleable and responsive.