Harvard University, 2015

Carpenter Center Exhibition Booklet

by James Voorhies, ed.

In a career spanning four decades, Lorraine O’Grady has consistently pursued a multi-disciplinary practice that challenges the societal conventions through which we understand and interpret gender, class, sexuality, art history, and race. She burst onto the New York scene in the early 1980s with her performance Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle-Class), a beauty queen persona in a pageant gown made of 180 pairs of white gloves, whipping a cat-o’-nine-tails at openings and shouting poems against the racial divides permeating the black and white art worlds. O’Grady subsequently found her way through photography, performance, writing, photomontage, and film to critically engage complicated power structures, institutions, and social constructs. Her potent observations on feminist histories, interracial relationships, biculturalism, and Western subjectivity are no less topical today and, in fact, even more urgent as we routinely bear witness on social media and news outlets to the dualisms between black identity and white identity, rich and poor, females and males.

The exhibition Lorraine O’Grady: Where Margins Become Centers features art from

five bodies of work, including photography, film, collage, performance documentation, and writing. The works of art and archival documents collected for this exhibition reveal the artist’s ongoing interest in critiquing the systemic powers affecting social behavior. O’Grady was born in Boston to upper-middle-class West Indian parents and educated at Wellesley College. Her inherited biculturalism—a young black woman coming of age in Anglo-Saxon New England—and participation in interracial relationships are grounds for a unique perspective from both within and on the periphery of diverse social spheres. These binary oppositions provide the basis for astute observations on human civilization, often deployed in the form of the diptych—notably, in the series Miscegenated Family Album and The First and the Last of the Modernists on view in this exhibition. Juxtaposing and collaging seemingly disparate dichotomies, the artist uses the extreme margins to explore the central undergirding and structures that support social oppositions. Her work challenges what is unwittingly or involuntarily agreed upon on a society-wide scale in a march toward dismantling accepted constructs. Her visual art and writing ultimately disturb consensus as an overall means of cultural criticism. (…)

Download full PDF