The French feminist magazine Petunia’s invitation to create a centerfold sparked O’Grady’s piece in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, The First and the Last of the Modernists. The text documents her decision to contrast images of Baudelaire and Michael Jackson.
In Pétunia: magazine féministe d’art contemporain et de loisirs, issue 2, pp. 43-46, Summer 2010.
© Lorraine O’Grady, 2010
June 1, 2009
For months I’ve planned to resume work on Flowers of Evil and Good, the photo-installation on Baudelaire and his black common-law wife Jeanne Duval and ultimately my mother Lena, which I began in 1995. I adore Baudelaire and taught his poetry for years at the School of Visual Arts here in New York. But as much as I love his poetry, I love him as a man because of Jeanne. Two decades! Longer than most couples I know, and without benefit of either wedding or kids. As a black woman who’s had white partners, I don’t have to speculate to say Charles learned a few things about his own culture he wouldn’t otherwise have known. . . that kind of insider-outsider position makes a leap from romanticism to modernism look easy. Although Jeanne is present in every line of his poetry, even when he writes about Mme Sabatier, she is absent everywhere. Where is her own voice? It isn’t until I hear her in the voice of my mother Lena, born 80 years later into a world which has not yet changed, that I can begin to know who Jeanne is. It is summer now, and I am eager to get back to work. But my computer crashes, and those early files are now buried in half a terabyte of data I must transfer from DVDs to a new external drive.
June 25, 2009
Oh, it is boring! Transferring and organizing is taking weeks. To prevent my mind from numbing, I live on the internet simultaneously. When the news first comes through, for hours I don’t believe it. But it’s true, Michael is dead. And now I am bawling uncontrollably. How could that be? I have always been a Prince fan! Where do my tears come from? Soon I am plunged into Google, into fansites, into YouTube. I maniacally download videos while continuing my data transfer (because I suspect the videos will quickly disappear), pull thousands of images, and read seemingly every article written in the aftermath plus others going back dozens of years. I am dumbfounded. Those who thought he hadn’t produced anything since Thriller had simply stopped listening and looking. MJ and Prince were so unalike, why did we feel we had to choose? ( . . . )