PRINT March 2021

Risk Everything

Lorraine O’Grady, The Clearing: or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me, 1991/2019, diptych, ink-jet prints, each 40 × 50". From Body Is the Ground of My Experience, 1991/2019. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A BALL TEMPTS two running children, their mouths joyful, their eyes on the prize. Clothes and baguettes spill onto the grass; neither modesty nor scarcity is of great concern. Suffused with delectation and too good to be true, the scene is Edenic, a black-and-white fête galante for the end of the twentieth century. Above it all float a nude couple unencumbered by gravity and ensnared in each other. His pale hips sink between her thighs, his torso presses limply on her chest. Her countenance is bolted in an ambiguous expression.

On the right, we are in the same place: the same lush trees, the same inviting field. The two figures have dropped back to earth, shoved down by gravity’s unseen hand. The man’s head is now a skull, his body wrapped in a chain-mail carapace, his fingers territorially on her breast, uninvited stray marks against her dark skin. She casts her eyes uncomfortably heavenward.

The twinned collages constitute a diptych in a 1991 group of works by Lorraine O’Grady called Body Is the Ground of My Experience. Tripping the tongue is the title’s absent article, refusing both the academic’s putative distance from flesh (“the body”) and any claim to ownership (“my body”). The work’s pairings are not new, but they retain their purchase. Eros and Thanatos, sure. Sedition disguised as leisure, of course. Half a millennium, perhaps longer, of brutality laminated with real pleasure, maybe even romance—one can never be certain. What else still furrows the brow like interracial sex?

At the precise moment when O’Grady’s oeuvre is being treated to recuperative attention, we would do well to celebrate the rightful consideration, but not let the mist get in our eyes.

Such dehiscences of the past are O’Grady’s enduring subject. Risk, I would suggest, is her primary medium, in a rich practice that spans collage, performance, and video. Viewers will get to see the breadth of that engagement in a long-awaited retrospective, “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And,” opening this month at the Brooklyn Museum, curated by Catherine Morris and Aruna D’Souza, the latter of whom edited an anthology of O’Grady’s texts, Writing in Space: 1973–2019, published last year by Duke University Press. A scholarly monograph by associate curator of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum Stephanie Sparling Williams is set to appear with the University of California Press later in 2021. (Sparling Williams contributed short essays on each of O’Grady’s series to the exhibition’s catalogue.) The artist, it would seem, is finally getting her due. Countering the art world’s breakneck pace, over the past fifty years, O’Grady has labored in carefully articulated series, often returning to and reworking earlier pieces. Amid her tightly controlled production, hers is a mind that whirls. “Body Is the Ground of My Experience” is a prime example. When O’Grady first exhibited the grouping in 1991, at New York City’s INTAR Gallery, she titled the aforementioned diptych The Clearing, an oblique phrase jangling with possible meanings. It flew over everyone’s heads. Today, it is called The Clearing: or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N., and Me.

Risk indeed. The title’s pairings concatenate figures in the manner of a highway pileup. What is at stake in placing her and her white male lover in an analogous relation with the others named? What is imperiled? What might be seen anew? The nature of O’Grady’s coupling with N. (whole worlds of feeling are loaded into that single initial) is, of course, distinct from Jefferson’s relations with Hemings, the woman he enslaved, for whom liberal definitions of consent were structural impossibilities. It is likewise irreducible to those between the Spanish conquistador and the Nahua woman, whose real name was likely Malintzin, and who long bore the blame for the Spanish colonization of the indigenous Aztec empire. O’Grady’s is a tightrope walk over catastrophic hyperbole. It is also inarguable that the histories of enslavement and colonial genocide here invoked are the marrow of modernity’s global project, inextricably part of the landmass we now call the Americas, and of any endeavor to live within it—including O’Grady’s own.

The past snaps into focus like a rubber band on the wrist: a brisk, rude interruption of the sensuous. So, too, is it a lurking, quiet presence, the only ground against which the self’s figure can ever be seen. Intimate details from O’Grady’s biography uneasily pervade. Her son was conceived in an open, grassy clearing (a tender memory); her first sexual experiences were tinged with the specter of death (the scent of embalming fluid overwhelming the factory shed into which neighborhood kids snuck for adolescent trysts).

Lorraine O’Grady dresses for her performance Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, 1980–83, Just Above Midtown, New York, June 5, 1980. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

O’Grady created The Clearing while at work on her essential text “Olympia’s Maid,” first presented at the College Art Association’s annual meeting in 1992, on the role of Laure, the Black model featured in Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1963. At the time Laure’s name was mostly unused, though it had been part of the published record as early as 1931. O’Grady wrote against such vanishings, and, at the same time, widened the panel’s focus on the female nude. As O’Grady explained, “The Black female’s body needs less to be rescued from the masculine ‘gaze’ than to be sprung from a historic script surrounding her with signification while at the same time, and not paradoxically, it erases her completely.” In this, she elaborates Hortense Spillers’s articulation of the historically “ungendered” place of Black women. She likewise invokes the scholar’s devastating critique of Sojourner Truth’s representative plate in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974–79. That O’Grady’s retrospective will sidle up alongside The Dinner Party, a permanent installation in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, seems a pointed rejoinder.

While hyperattentive to the past, O’Grady’s project has never been to rescue individual figures from the ash heaps of history. Rather, hers is an ongoing attempt to interrogate the system that effects—perhaps requires—that very evanescence. At the precise moment when her own oeuvre is being treated to recuperative attention, we would do well to follow her lead: to celebrate the rightful consideration but not let the mist get in our eyes. What would Mlle Bourgeoise Noire do? After all, O’Grady’s most iconic performances in this guise, staged between 1980 and 1983, staunchly rejected the paucities of mere “inclusion.”

Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, 1980–83. Performance view, New Museum, New York, September 18, 1981. Center: Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Lorraine O’Grady). Photo: Coreen Simpson and Salima Ali. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Something of an art-historical fable, the performances persist as a catchment of investments rather than of facts, their images “widely reproduced without an explanatory context,” in the artist’s own words. The twentieth-century-art-history survey knows not what to make of it, other than to mark its distance from other—more dominant, more anhedonic—Conceptualisms. Who is this figure so conjured, sash on her breast, 180 white debutante’s gloves flapping ridiculously in the stale air? She first appeared in June 1980 at the opening of “Outlaw Aesthetics” at Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown gallery, and then, in September 1981, at “Persona” at the New Museum. The sites at which she installed herself—one exhibition featuring Black artists, the other featuring exclusively white ones—were as purposeful as the objects she carried, including flowers, which she gave away freely throughout the vernissage, and a cat-o’-nine-tails made of white chrysanthemums, with which she lashed herself, all the while walloping partygoers with words.

At JAM, she adapted Léon-Gontran Damas’s 1972 poem “Trêve” (“Enough”). In the poem, the speaker has had enough “of bootlicking and / of an attitude / of hyperassimilateds.” One of the many Francophone writers associated with Négritude, an anticolonial cultural and intellectual movement, Damas was born in Cayenne, French Guiana, once a French penal colony (and Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s fictional home). Trêve means both “truce,” a mutually agreed upon cessation of hostilities in warfare, and “enough.” It’s the latter sense Damas uses to contranymic effect, suggesting both exasperation and plenitude. O’Grady transforms Damas’s elliptical phrasing into a series of unequivocal commands: “THAT’s ENOUGH! / No more boot-licking / No more ass-kissing / No more buttering-up / No more pos . . . turing / Of super-ass . . . imilates / BLACK ART MUST TAKE MORE RISKS!!!”

Loving language is like loving anything: The object is precious even though—or perhaps because—it is inadequate.

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire no doubt hails from the place Margo Jefferson slyly called “Negroland” in her 2015 memoir of that name, a region of the mind characterized by its privilege and respectability, and one familiar from O’Grady’s own tony Bostonian childhood (she was middle-class, biracial, propelled first to Wellesley, then on to a professional career). That familiarity breeds both contempt and tenderness, as when O’Grady describes the gloves adorning her dress as the kind worn by “women who believed in them.” Looking at the long, elegant pair folded primly across O’Grady’s décolletage, one could be forgiven for so believing. Hers are tirades against “art with white gloves on,” but such gloves are worn not just by the debutante but by the art handler and conservator, too—which is to say that the performance eviscerates not only artists who play it safe, but also the entire system of extracted value and its preservation that parades under the banner of “art.”

In both performances of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, O’Grady was accompanied by a male companion in a tuxedo (at JAM, the artist’s brother-in-law, Edward Allen, played the part; at the New Museum, Jeffrey Scott did.) The role of “Master of Ceremonies”—a stuffy determinant of form and protocol—ricochets against the emcees of hip-hop, a cipher for Black authenticity that was, in the early 1980s, undergoing rapacious commodification; it also, when paired with Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s whippings, evokes the “masters” by which slavery enacted its terrible project, violence’s masquerade in genteel names. Like Spillers’s grammar and Damas’s syntax, O’Grady’s artistic operations are more often than not linguistic—enjambments of the world-historical and the intimate.

Lorraine O’Grady, Cutting Out CONYT, Haiku Diptych 9, 1977/2017, letterpress on Japanese paper, collaged onto laid paper, two panels, each 41 3⁄4 × 30". From the series “Cutting Out CONYT,” 1977/2017. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Loving language is like loving anything: The object is precious even though—or perhaps because—it is inadequate. In 1977, O’Grady started cutting phrases from the Sunday Times to make “counter-confessional” poems, her first works of art. “Cutting Out the New York Times,” 1977, began as a private endeavor, but one she felt necessary to extrude through the most public of source material. In 2017, she revisited the series. In the resulting “Cutting Out CONYT,” filets of language sprawl across conjoined pages, the gutters between which act as both gulf and bridge to association. The original poems become source, doubling the operations of the first, and the words sprawl more expansively across the composition. The cotton-candy observations of the paper’s lifestyle sections gain meaning through each new orthographic juxtaposition. “Some people go / IN SEARCH OF / The Trauma of / Privacy” says one. On the right-hand side, “Uptown, Downtown—they’re free” conjures the art world’s racialized divisions, as entrenched then as now, the invocation of independence bitterly ironic. Another, which reads, “In the Amber Glow of / August skin / there is no escape from terror,” begins with the respite of a summer vacation and ends in a petrifying scene; the conjunction of skin and the kind of terror from which there is no release can only conjure white supremacy’s repeated enactments. Still another puts things more baldly: “White and Black and / THE SOUND THAT SHOOK HOLLYWOOD / The Crisis Deepens in / Theatrical Détente.”

As Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, O’Grady would, in 1983, undertake two additional creative gambits, both curatorial. The first was organizing “The Black and White Show” at Kenkeleba House gallery in the East Village. Its premise—to feature fourteen white and fourteen Black artists, all exhibiting black-and-white work—risked gimmickry. Many people thought it was the best show in New York that year. Via the bluntest articulation of “parity,” O’Grady exposed one of racism’s many ruses: that even basic redress is difficult, requiring time and patience to begin. The second was her performance Art Is . . ., staged in September 1983 as a float in Harlem’s annual African American Day Parade. The resulting photo-installation—the means by which most viewers have encountered the work—portrays Black people in joyous reverie. Sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, the “sitters” cock their heads, scooch in close, delight in one another’s gazes, all brought to the glittering fore by gold frames that repeat and amplify the camera’s own means of directing focus. In a pointed elaboration of the Duchampian readymade, each paradegoer becomes the “art,” as do the waystations dotting Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard: Lickety Split Cocktail Lounge, Sheadrach Home Cooking, Ashanti Professionals. (O’Grady’s captions are a particular delight, especially those accompanying the photos of white police officers assigned to work the parade beat: “Cop framed,” “Framing cop.”)

Lorraine O’Grady, Art Is . . . (Girl Pointing), 1983/2009, C-print, 20 × 16", From Art Is . . . , 1983/2009. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Viewers may have been surprised when, on November 7, 2020, the day the presidential election was finally called, the Biden-Harris campaign released a celebratory video cribbing from O’Grady’s performance. (O’Grady gave her consent to use the work as inspiration.) Compared to O’Grady’s Art Is . . ., the clip was arid: a phantasm of multicultural liberalism, stretched uncomfortably taut by a thousand social-media managers and sucked dry of any spontaneity or exuberance. If the work’s original aim was to celebrate the beauty of Black people and culture, the campaign replaced that focus with a spotlight on America the beautiful, as in the lyrics of the backing track. To this writer, the displacement of Harlem and, specifically, of Black lifeways in favor of a celebratory fantasy of “nation” was plainly gross, but perhaps the veneer of gutless representation spread over an imperial hegemon can only ever be that. One can imagine the damning collage O’Grady might yet make, taking her scissors to the corresponding New York Times headline: “One Artist’s Vision Frames Biden’s Message on Unity.”

Against the smug ideologies of our nationalist project—in which the Black middle class is offered up, again and again, as proof of absolution from America’s original sins—O’Grady herself has always favored the distinct traditions of Black internationalism. As O’Grady explains in her 1994 essay, for her, hybridity is not merely “genetic commingling,” but rather a means of using diaspora peoples’ “internal negotiation between apparently irreconcilable fields” as a mode of operation, of critique. Given her Jamaican heritage, she might be placed amid Caribbean philosophical currents, joining figures such as Damas, Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé, Stuart Hall, Sylvia Wynter, and Hazel V. Carby. O’Grady writes, “Wherever I stand, I find I have to build a bridge to some other place,” a sentiment that sits well with the heterolingualism, archipelagic geographies, and relentless querying of movement and relation in much Caribbean thought.

Rather than taxonomize, O’Grady finds herself fluttering madly against representation’s many pins.

Cover of The Crisis: The Record of Darker Races 1, no. 5 (March 1911).

Rather than taxonomize, O’Grady finds herself fluttering madly against representation’s many pins. Consider her Miscegenated Family Album, 1980/1994, which features diptychs of O’Grady’s family photos set alongside reproductions of ancient Egyptian busts and tomb carvings. (It draws on and adapts material from a 1980 performance, Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, also presented at JAM.) Many critics have rightly observed that the work skewers the white compulsion to conscript Egypt as an ancient font of Western culture, but such accounts elide the floating signifier Egypt has long been and, in particular, the persistence of Egyptian imagery in the history of African American art and thought. In the early twentieth century, visual invocations of Egypt—at once real and imagined—appear in the murals of Aaron Douglas, in the paintings of Loïs Mailou Jones, in the sculpture of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, and on covers of the NAACP’s The Crisis alike.

Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album (Worldly Princesses), L: Nefertiti’s daughter, Merytaten; R: Devonia’s daughter, Kimberley, 1980/1994, diptych, Cibachrome prints, overall 26 × 37". From Miscegenated Family Album, 1980/1994. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

By recourse to that staple of art-historical study, the dual-slide comparison, O’Grady reverses Tolstoy’s dictum. These are tender considerations of unhappy familial likeness. She turns to the eighteenth-dynasty Egyptian queen Nefertiti and her husband, Akhenaten, their three daughters, Merytaten, Maketaten, and Akhesenpaaten, and Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnedjmet. O’Grady maps this family tree onto that of herself and her own late sister, Devonia; Devonia’s husband, Edward Jr.; and their two daughters, Candace and Kimberley. Each pairing operates by way of similarities that are more a function of composition and framing than of actual physiological resemblance, though they suggest the latter to great effect. In Sisters I (L: Nefertiti, R: Devonia), it is the wry, unfixed gaze of the sculptural bust on the left and the direct, conspiratorial look from the photograph on the right that cinch the analogy; in Sisters II (L: Nefertiti’s daughter, Merytaten, R: Devonia’s daughter, Candace), an implied similitude between the Egyptian nemes and Candace’s natural hair makes the case. Elsewhere, it is the doubled expressions of maternal affection and a child’s weariness with adult ways, as in A Mother’s Kiss and Worldly Princesses, respectively, that draw the eye. We are partners in the painful work of identification, sorting through records of loss and unknowing. Still, in their invitation to compare and contrast features such as the shape of eyes, the placement of cheekbones, and the upturning of noses, the pairings likewise conjure the terrible history of scientific racism and photography’s early conscription into its discourses of phrenology and polygenesis. Thus the series is at once a poignant reach across history in search of kinship, precedent, and solidarity, and also a wry smirk at the pseudomorphology that might undergird any such endeavor.

Many things seem alike. Learning a language, you might call them “false friends.” O’Grady’s genius lies in her willingness to embody speculative, treacherous conjunctions cresting the edges of comprehension. It is our task to keep up, lest we confuse liberation—what really matters—with something that just stands in its place.

Catherine Damman is a New York–based art historian and critic.