Stedelijk Studies #3, 2016

“Frame Me”: Speaking Out of Turn and Lorraine O’Grady’s Alien Avant-Garde

by Stephanie Sparling Williams, 2016

Eight years before the art world would become meaningfully integrated with the exhibits of David Hammons and Adrian Piper, and ten years before Coco Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s controversial performance Two Undiscovered Amerindians, American artist Lorraine O’Grady (born 1934 in Boston) staged a series of alien invasions on New York art spaces as the now notorious Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle-Class). The first time this persona appeared was at Just Above Midtown (JAM) during one of O’Grady’s first public performances in 1980. Dressed in an extravagant debutante-style gown made with one hundred and eighty pairs of white gloves, O’Grady shouted at her predominantly black audience as she ceremoniously whipped herself with a cat-o’-nine-tails spiked with white chrysanthemums:

THAT’S ENOUGH!
No more boot-licking…
No more ass-kissing…
No more buttering-up…
Of super-ass…imilates…
BLACK ART MUST TAKE MORE RISKS!!!1

While the crashed gallery opening was for that of an exhibition called Outlaw Aesthetics, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s (MBN) invasion was unsolicited and her speech out of turn—a strategy scholar/artist Michele Wallace, argues is the only ‘tradition’ available to the black female critical voice.2 Later, art critic and curator Lucy Lippard invokes the powerful stance of speaking out of turn in her essay about Wallace’s work.3 Out of turn for Lippard can be understood as, “outside the dizzying circle of white and male discourse.”4 I recuperate the historical phrase “speaking out of turn” for this essay on Lorraine O’Grady’s performance art in order to revitalize and develop a vocabulary necessary for intervening in western-centric discourses of art history, the study of visual objects such as MBN, and for discussing the interventions these performative objects are making.

Speaking out of turn is predicated on a preexisting ‘turn,’ or order of speech. To speak out of turn means that you have spoken when it was not your turn to do so. More broadly defined, ‘speaking out of turn’ connotes 1) speaking at the wrong time or in an undesignated place, 2) saying something without authority, 3) making a remark/providing information that is tactless or indiscreet, or 4) speaking without permission.5 Speaking out of turn is a methodology developed out of the historical condition of being silenced and rendered invisible. Conditions, for example, established and maintained in order to manage the exclusive boundaries of the fine art world. (…)

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