Lorraine O’Grady. Interview by Laura Cottingham. Nov 5, 1995*
© Hatch-Billops Collection, Inc. 1996
In-depth interview done for the excellent Artist and Influence series produced by Camille Billops and James Hatch for their archive of African American visual and theatre arts.
This is my good friend Laura Cottingham. We’ve been having conversations like this for some time now.
I want to start by asking you how you came to understand yourself as an artist, how did you adopt that identity, what in your own life led you to this understanding of yourself?
I understood that I was an artist almost by accident. I was pushed into it at about age twenty-five. You have to understand, I came from the kind of family where the arts would never have been encouraged. They were West Indian immigrants, and immigrants of color are de-classed when they come here. They may have been middle class and upper class in Jamaica, but here they were de-classed into the working class. They didn’t have time or energy to devote to what we might think of as life-affirming activities. They really had to focus on survival. They understood a lot about taste, like what kind of silverware and china to put on the table, but in terms of what books to read—I don’t think that was what they were able to give me. They were not really culture-oriented. And I don’t think they were
unique in that way. The black middle class has not been involved with wealth accumulation long enough nor is it financially and socially secure enough that bohemianism and encouraging children to be artists is an option for them. I had that driven home to me when I did a residency at Wellesley College on the occasion of the premiere of “Miscegenated Family Album.” Here I was, going back to my old school having fantasized that the work I was doing was for them, for the new generation of girls of color who would be an audience like me, but it was sad and disappointing. When I got there I found myself addressing audiences with the same Euro demographics of the New York art world, in spite of the fact that one out of three Wellesley students is now of color. Not only could young African American women, young Latino American women, young Asian American women not conceive of themselves as being artists, they couldn’t even conceive of art appreciation as something to which they could devote much of their time. When I asked the professors at Wellesley why this was the case, they told me students of color seemed focused on preparing for the professions. It was the same dynamic I had experienced in my own family so many years ago, when nobody could imagine anything but that I would prepare for a profession. ( … )