Linda Theung, “Lorraine O’Grady,” WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, Catalogue essay, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2007.
b. 1934, Boston
Lives and works in New York
Born in Boston into a family of Jamaican immigrants, Lorraine O’Grady was raised with “middle- and upper-class British colonial values” that conflicted with her awareness of and exposure to the “neighboring black working-class culture.”
The contrast between her own background and that of her African-American peers informed her rebellion “against the conflicting values instilled in [her].” Drawing on her own complex relationship to issues of race as a springboard for her work, O’Grady set out to prove Toni Morrison’s dictum that “art can be both socially responsible and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
After graduating from Wellesley College, where she majored in economics and minored in Spanish literature, and pursuing an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, O’Grady relocated to New York to develop her art practice. By the mid-1970s, New York was the epicenter of a thriving African-American art scene; however, the mainstream art world would remain largely
segregated until the breakthrough shows of David Hammons and Adrian Piper in 1988–89, with institutions in New York often only recognizing African-American artists whose work was abstract and minimalist. O’Grady reacted with anger—which she regards as her “most productive emotion”—to works she viewed as containing no references to the identity and experiences of their makers so as to be easily subsumed by the white art world. However, her ire was not exclusively reserved for members of the art establishment; O’Grady was equally critical of emerging African-American artists who compromised themselves to gain acceptance.
In response to the series of works and performances by Eleanor Antin in which Antin assumed the fictional persona of an African-American ballerina named Eleanora Antinova (1979–89), O’Grady invented her own persona—that of raging beauty queen Mlle Bourgeoise Noire. Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was first performed in 1980 at Just Above Midtown Gallery, New York, as a response to “Afro-American Abstraction,” an exhibition of that same year at P.S.1 that featured non-figurative work by nineteen African-American artists. ( . . . )