Interview by Linda Montano, 1986

Linda Montano interviews Lorraine O’Grady for the Ritual section of her projected book, Performance Artists Talking.

June 1986*

Montano’s questions on “ritual” cast interesting light on the connection between O’Grady’s early life and her performances. The unedited transcript of the interview contains answers in greater depth on Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline.

Montano: What were your childhood rituals?

O’Grady: When I was born, my mother was thirty-seven and my only sister was eleven. I guess I came along just when my mother was imagining that she way about to become free, and the feeling that I was an afterthought, that I wasn’t really wanted, was somehow always conveyed to me.

Because I was unhappy in my family and, even then, dissatisfied with my culture, which I still see as provincial in an unattractive way. I began very early to reject the rituals offered me and to think up others. At family picnics, for instance, I would be ten years younger than any of my cousins. Everybody else would be having a great time playing and kidding around, while I would just be bored. Even though I participated in some of the happy times, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, I always had this feeling that these occasions weren’t for me, that they were for the real family.

I think that what I unconsciously began to do was to search out rituals that wouldn’t interest my family, in particular my immediate family, at all. . .

like going to church. Most people’s rebellion takes the form of rejecting their family’s church, but mine was the reverse. My parents were generically Episcopalian because they were middle-class British West Indians who never went to church, except for funerals and weddings. They thought all that kind of socializing too simple, almost lower class. Perhaps I did, too, because that wasn’t the part of church that attracted me. What I liked were the rituals and the idea of belief in God. While everyone else hung around the house on Sundays, I sought out the most ritualized Episcopal church I could find in Boston, not the West Indian parish, which was very Protestant and low church, but one that was so high church as to be almost indistinguishable from Catholic. By the time I was fourteen I didn’t just go on Sundays; in Lent I went to mass every morning before going to school. When I look back, I think that what I was doing as a child and what I continue to do as an adult is to define myself by those rituals I accepted and those I rejected.

By late adolescence, the rituals had less to do with things like family and church and more to do with the outside world. ( … )

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