Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio, March 22, 1982*
© Lorraine O’Grady, 1982
After a delay to see if the first chronicle on Mlle Bourgeoise Noire would be accepted by High Performance, a second on Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline was submitted the following year — though it had in fact premiered at Just Above Midtown just 3 months later.
Throughout the first half, the effect of the piece is flat and two-dimensional, like the pages of a book. Two screens slowly project slides of Nefertiti and Devonia and their families, side by side beneath a sparely written soundtrack on which the artist uses eleven different narrative and dramatic voices to tell the stories of their lives.
As the piece opens, a woman’s voice is intoning Nefertiti’s names and titles: “Beautiful Are the Beauties of the Aton! The Beautiful One Is Come! Mistress of Loveliness, the King’s Great Wife, Lady of the Two Lands!” The left screen lights up with an image of Nefertiti at 25, the famous Berlin limestone head, face turned slightly right.
The soundtrack continues, the voice sounding like a very young girl: “My big sister’s getting married. You should see the wedding ring. It’s like this circle of leaves, twelve leaves going all around. And on each leaf it’s got three diamonds. Thirty-six diamonds in all!” Onto the right screen comes a wedding portrait of Devonia, wearing a veil. She is 24, her head turned slightly left.
Soon it becomes clear that the two who face each other are even more alike emotionally than physically: they are beautiful women who still do not question their roles.
The images on screen and the words of the soundtrack interact and change, becoming more and more layered. They approximate but do not quite form a straight narrative line. Nefertiti and Devonia Evangeline marry, have daughters, and perform ceremonial functions, the one as a priestess, the other as a member of a wedding. In a rising climax, when they are attacked by bitter younger sisters (Mutnedjmet and Lorraine), Nefertiti and Devonia choose each other instead.
This act of mutual and self-recognition enables the two to say goodbye to their youthful beauty and to assert their individuality as women: Nefertiti in a refusal to be sexually discarded, and Devonia in a decision to go back to work. But they pay a price for independence. They die at the ages of 37 and 38 (…)