Lorraine O’Grady Interview by Courtney Baker, Ph.D. candidate, Literature Program, Duke University.
Unpublished email exchange, 1998.
The most comprehensive and focused interview of O’Grady to date, this Q & A by a Duke University doctoral candidate benefited from the slowness of the email format, the African American feminist scholar’s deep familiarity with O’Grady’s work, and their personal friendship.
In November 1998, Courtney Baker interviewed O’Grady for a paper for a performance class with Kristine Stiles at Duke. The Stiles paper was to be the first of two papers: the second, for a symposium the following semester, would address O’Grady’s more recent work. The current paper would contain basic research for the second and be limited to older work.
Baker: As a set up, the two pieces I want to focus on are Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, mostly because there is more written on those pieces and I feel I have a better handle on them. Do you think this is okay, or am I remiss in leaving out some of your other performance work?
O’Grady: I understand why you’d know more about those two. Art Is. . ., the parade piece I did in Harlem, was intentionally less well known as I did it basically outside the art world. But Rivers, First Draft, a kind of “three ring” performance in Central Park, which only those who were there were able to see, has become more interesting to me as I look back. It’s the most “feminist” piece I ever did. I know you minored in women’s studies,
and you might like to take a look at what’s left of it, some photographs and a script.
In Rivers, First Draft, there is a moment where—after playing around in the castle (up the hill), then leaving to find herself and her place; and after being raped by the Debauchees on her way down the hill—the Woman in Red goes into the Black Artists’ room (a door placed on the hill, behind which three black male artists are standing and crouching). But when the Woman in Red enters, the black male artists toss her around and throw her out summarily and roughly. She looks around dazed, then instinctively descends further down the hill, still trying to find her way. There’s a white stove at the bottom which, to her, echoes her mother’s white kitchen on the other side of the stream. She paints it red in an attempt to make it her own.
These actions are a not-so-metaphoric description of what happened to me autobiographically: drifting in the losing battle to please unpleasable parents (the way abused kids do, because they have no perspective, see no alternative), then partying absently, without a self—nobody home. After a while (a long while), if you have any brains at all, you can see the emptiness (…)