PRINT March 2021

Close-Up: Theory of Relativity

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

GOOGLE “NEFERTITI’S SISTER,” and a diptych from Lorraine O’Grady’s Miscegenated Family Album, 1980/1994, is the second result. The piece features a photo of the artist beside a photo of a stone bust of Mutnedjmet, the sister of the Egyptian queen; O’Grady and Mutnedjmet, both shot in three-quarter profile, bear a strong mutual resemblance. The subsequent search results also belong to O’Grady’s series: a different view of that same Mutnedjmet bust, next to a ca. 1340 BCE bust of Nefertiti (less resemblance here, even though they are sisters); a sculpture of Nefertiti’s daughter Merytaten with a photograph of Candace, O’Grady’s niece. In the latter pairing, the pictures’ similarity may be attributed as much to devices such as cropping and framing as to the subjects’ shared appearance: their matching poses, slight smiles, rounded faces, dark eyes, angled brows. As in many of the sixteen diptychs in O’Grady’s series, the images are intimate and approachable, like pictures slipped into the plastic sleeves of a photo album.

Still, the diptychs’ formality and the Egyptian representations’ evident materiality remind the viewer that these arrangements were not made at home. They are, however, at home on the internet, where opaque algorithmic tools such as Google’s reverse image search may discover similitudes that span contexts, media, creators, palettes, and periods. Consider the image search in a more rudimentary way, as a recollection of lost material, a resurrection of old files, and you arrive at a curious inversion of that stubborn association of photography with death (“I am truly becoming a specter,” Roland Barthes thinks as he sits before the camera): The image search is a tool of revival.

Lorraine O’Grady, Miscegenated Family Album (A Mother’s Kiss), T: Candace and Devonian; B: Nefertiti and daughter, 1980/1994, diptych, Cibachrome prints, overall 37 × 26". From Miscegenated Family Album, 1980/1994. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

O’Grady’s series itself began with a search for images. On a trip to Egypt in 1963, the artist saw her own features in the faces of others and found herself being identified with a people for the first time. That experience led to the performance Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, staged in 1980 at the New York gallery Just Above Midtown. The piece riffed on an ancient Egyptian ceremony called the Opening of the Mouth, which addressed the stages of the life cycle (it called for a tool otherwise used to cut umbilical cords) and centered on a priest “animating” a statue of a deceased person to facilitate the transition to the afterlife (the Egyptian word for sculpture means “a thing that is caused to live”). During O’Grady’s performance, a slide projection of sixty-five diptychs compared the features and lives of her sister Devonia and Nefertiti, of O’Grady herself and Mutnedjmet, and of their relatives, thereby suggesting a reunion of the members of these distinct families. When a prerecorded soundtrack announced the deaths of Devonia and Nefertiti—O’Grady’s sister had died after an abortion nearly two decades earlier—the artist, in her voluminous red dress, began a sequence of sweeping pseudo-ceremonial gestures, as if facilitating these relatives’ rebirths into the afterlife through photography.

The resemblance between Devonia and Nefertiti was particularly striking to O’Grady given her family’s diasporic roots (her parents were Jamaican immigrants to the United States who held “British colonial values”) and the fraught and racist history of Egyptian scholarship. As explained by a wall text in the Egyptian-art gallery at New York’s Brooklyn Museum—where O’Grady’s series is to be shown as part of a retrospective opening this month—Egyptologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “rejected the notion that Africans could create a high civilization” and attributed the country’s cultural production to “lighter-skinned outsiders.” But Egyptian culture’s distinctive traits can in fact be traced back to the indigenous people who lived in the south of the country five thousand years ago. By the time Nefertiti ruled the region, its art had incorporated media and styles from neighboring areas while remaining distinct—and distinctly tied to African traditions and beliefs.

For O’Grady, Egypt is a locus of relations, a site of hybridity and therefore of possibility.

The hybridity of Egyptian art is closely related to the “miscegenation” of the series’ title. As a descriptor for a fabricated family album, the word is at once particular and general: The album is “mixed” in the literal sense that it brings two disparate families into one whole, but the title might also describe the respective lineages of O’Grady and Nefertiti. Either way, it suggests likeness and similarity across what might otherwise be perceived as difference. As Jared Sexton notes, the gen in miscegenation is the root of gene, gender, and genesis—words associated with particularity—as well as general and generic. “The general is always already mixed,” he writes, as with an arithmetic mean.

A desire to address the racism in scholarship on Egyptian art, and in museum practices more broadly, was surely a spark for Miscegenated Family Album. But for O’Grady, Egypt is also a locus of relations, a site of hybridity and therefore of possibility. Although the diptychs’ initial appeal may be their attention to physiognomy, phrases in their titles—“Sibling Rivalry,” “A Mother’s Kiss,” “Hero Worship,” “Progress of Queens”—allude to larger parallels, untold narratives both real and imagined. O’Grady deploys the family album as a storytelling device. We attempt to follow along, always aware of a certain misalignment or incompleteness.

The series is therefore not only a set of comparisons but also a network of relations. In ancient Egypt, death was understood to be a “form of dismemberment, both corporeal and social”; O’Grady’s work processes death through the inverse: by staging an assembly of family members otherwise dispersed. The work is, in a sense, all connection, tiers of relations—and at the same time, it insists on the isolation of each subject in her own frame. Images of Nefertiti are scarce in part because, under her reign, artisans made sculptures in pieces—eye, eye socket, eyebrow—and then combined them into a single figure. Over the years, the disparate parts were scattered, some lost.

Mira Dayal is an artist and critic based in New York.