O’Grady used the margin comments of her Artforum editor on “The Black and White Show” in part as an opportunity for background clarification on the situation of race in the 1980s art world.
© Lorraine O’Grady 2009
TEXT REFERENCE: “‘Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’ event”
ES: when did you come up with the concept for The Black and White Show, and do you remember what the specific impetus was, if there was one? Or was it a more generalized response, as you suggest below, to the virtually segregated art world?
LOG: It was part of an invasive strategy I’d employed from the beginning. All black artists probably thought about this “virtual segregation” all the time. But I may have responded more aggressively.
I sometimes joke that I was “post-racial” BEFORE I was “racial.” I’d graduated from Wellesley in the mid 50s, way before the civil rights battles, landed one of the most prestigious entry-level jobs in the federal government based squarely on merit, had married interracially, and in general avoided the most egregious forms of discrimination—perhaps due to how I looked (I was fair-skinned and still straightened my hair).
The art world was the first place I’d felt “cornered” that way.
The segregation wasn’t absolute but the occasional exception, such as an incidental solo at the Whitney in a ground floor gallery off to the side, felt meaningless. Mlle Bourgeoise Noire began shouting in 1980. Then in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls put up posters counting the numbers of women in commercial art galleries. But to have counted the numbers of blacks and other non-whites in those same galleries would have been an ironic gesture.
The Black and White Show was in 1983. In 1988, Lowery Stokes Sims and Leslie King-Hammond curated Art As A Verb, featuring 13 black avant-garde artists, to show that side of black art making. The exhibit at the Studio Museum and the Met Life Gallery got a review in the New York Times, but didn’t make a strong dent. The Decade Show of 1990 was more impactful. It was co-produced by three institutions—the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art—and featured 200 works by 94. ( . . . )