LORRAINE O’GRADY: NEW WORLDS
by Shelley Rice, 2012
Lorraine O’Grady has been around a long time. An active and avid feminist, a conceptual artist, photographer, writer, performer and video artist, she has been at the forefront of discussions about African Americans and their relationships to the multiple pasts of our complex postcolonial society. I first came across her art in New York around 1980, when she pioneered ideas that would resonate with the groundbreaking works of women like Adrian Piper and, later, Carrie Mae Weems, Deb Willis and Lorna Simpson. Juxtaposing two black and white images, the faces of contemporary African American acquaintances next to reproductions of sculptural portraits carved in ancient Egypt, she put forth the evidence of genealogy. Like writer Martin Bernal, the author of the book Black Athena, O’Grady claimed the African heritage of that shining civilization, a pedigree written into the genetic traces of her race and made visible centuries later by the medium of photography.
This was startling work thirty years ago, and though her latest Chelsea gallery show is quite different, it is still deeply rooted in the experience of the Black female body.
The Body/Ground series of photomontages, conceived in 1991 and re-formatted for this exhibition in 2012, uses that body to describe, confront and interrogate the condition of the Western landscape. Born in Boston to Jamaican parents, O’Grady was one of the first artists, along with Ana Mendieta, to articulate the complicated conditions of cultural stability, hybridity and displacement experienced by those who take root in a land not their own. The colonized body, for instance, is the “ground” out of which The Fir-Pam tree (an odd cross between a New England fir and Caribbean palm tree) grows upward against a cloudy sky. “My attitude about hybridity,” the artist has said, “is that it is essential to understanding what is happening here. People’s reluctance to acknowledge it is part of the problem… I’m really advocating for the kind of miscegenated thinking that’s needed to deal with what we’ve already created here.” The landscape which all of us inhabit today is, from her point of view, the amalgamation of the colonized body and the soil to which it has been transplanted. ( . . . )