Interview by Theo Davis, 1996

Artist as Art Critic: An Interview with Conceptualist Lorraine O’Grady*

by Theo Davis

© Sojourner: The Women’s Forum

Conducted in Cambridge during O’Grady’s one-year residency at the Bunting Institute at Harvard, the interview may have been affected by what she’d felt as adverse treatment there of her diptych The Clearing.

Lorraine O’Grady is a conceptual artist whose works explore biculturality and assert her right to make critical art. O’Grady began work as a performance artist in 1980 with the performance Mlle Bourgeoise Noire. She appeared at art openings dressed as a debutante or beauty queen, passing out white chrysanthemums to patrons. She would suddenly begin lashing a cat-o’-nine tails while declaring, “No more boot-lickin’/ No more ass-kissin’. . . . BLACK ART MUST TAKE MORE RISKS.” She has since moved on to work in the form of the photographic diptych. Her piece Miscegenated Family Album consists of sixteen diptychs, contrasting photographs of Egyptian art representing Nefertiti with family photographs of O’Grady’s sister. The work resonates with formal beauty, emotional intensity, and a keen insistence on the presence of bicultural families throughout history. We spoke this past winter while O’Grady was an artist-in-residence at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, where she was working on a new series of diptychs entitled The Secret History. In this new work, O’Grady has set out to “insert an African female subjectivity into the language of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.”

Your involvement with art began as a writer. What was it like to begin performing as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire?

I was a pretty extroverted, demonstrative type and I had a lot of experience defending my experience in public places. As a child, at the age of twelve, I was a star debater at Girls’ Latin School. I was a little twelve-year-old freshman on the stage with the seniors, with the big school auditorium filled with my parents and all the other kids. Partially I was able to do it because I was not as afraid as a normal person would be. A normal person would not have done Mlle Bourgeoise Noire!

I think I did pretty well as a second-generation performance artist to say things in performance that had not been said before. The problem is that I’m always saying things that haven’t been said before, so it takes a while before they can be heard. Mlle Bourgeoise Noire had this punchline: “Black art must take more risks,” and of course Black artists didn’t like her, and with the line: “Now is the time for an invasion,” of course white institutions didn’t like her either—at the time. Now she’s a role model, now she’s in a museum, now the costume has been sold. ( … )

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