Art In America, 2016

Lorraine O’Grady at Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts

by Kirsten Swenson, 2016

At the time, it seemed unremarkable to walk onto the Harvard campus to view “Lorraine O’Grady: Where Margins Become Centers,” tucked inside the Carpenter Center, America’s sole Le Corbusier-designed building. The exhibition pivoted around O’Grady’s iconic 1981 performance, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Goes to the New Museum. Archival materials from this “guerrilla invasion” were displayed in vitrines throughout the show. O’Grady had crashed the opening of the New Museum’s “Persona,” an exhibition featuring nine artists working with alter egos. The concept seemed progressive—Collette, Lynn Hershman Leeson and Eleanor Antin participated—but every artist was white. The rapidly politicizing New York art world of the early 1980s still had its margins. O’Grady, New England-raised and of Caribbean, African and Irish descent, protested her exclusion. After all, her persona, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, had achieved a degree of art world notoriety, and the museum had invited her to lead a program for schoolchildren (later rescinded). O’Grady was not pleased. She arrived at the opening in a dress and cape stitched of white gloves. She handed out chrysanthemums, smiling sweetly, then beat herself with a cat-o’-

nine-tails—“the whip that made plantations move,” according to her own description of the piece. Finally, she read an acerbic poem that took aim at the art world’s so-called alternative spaces. It ended with a call to black artists: “Now is the time for an invasion!!!!”

“Where Margins Become Centers” explored forms of internalized and externalized oppression. Photographic diptychs filled the walls, establishing seductive dualities—aesthetic twinnings that propose both false origins and uncanny parallels. The series “Miscegenated Family Album” (1980/94) pairs O’Grady’s sister, Devonia, and Devonia’s daughter with ancient Egyptian renderings of Nefertiti. The women strike similar poses, prompting a sort of mythmaking—imagined matriarchies, a confusion of nature (genetics) and culture. A hallway outside the main galleries was hung with the series “The First and Last of the Modernists,” diptychs of Baudelaire and Michael Jackson. Both figures are flamboyant expositions of identity, the channeling of conflicted emotions into public personae. Dandyism is a lineage like race in this proposition. (…)

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