Rivers and Just Above Midtown, 2013, 2015

A meditation on why Rivers, First Draft might not have existed without the Just Above Midtown Gallery’s challenging and supportive environment. Text first read at MOMA’s “Now Dig This!” symposium, 2013.

© Lorraine O’Grady, “Rivers and Just Above Midtown,” Lorraine O’Grady, Alexander Gray Associates, NY, 2015. Exhibition catalogue.


The Rivers, First Draft installation consists of photos from a performance done in Central Park as part of “Art Across the Park” in Summer 1982. Together, the curator and I made an exhausting tour of the Park to look at suitable locations.

When she and I reached The Loch, a little-known section at the Park’s northern edge, it captured me. This wasn’t the Frederic Law Olmsted I thought I knew. It was wild and frighteningly unkempt, like something out of literature, not the city. And it was perfect for the piece I needed to create.

Rivers would be a one-time only event with a cast and crew of 20, several of whom, including a young Fred Wilson and the late George Mingo, were part of Just Above Midtown, the black avant-garde gallery I was associated with then. The piece would be performed for an invited audience barely twice as large as the cast, no more than 40 people, nearly all with JAM or part of its environment.

And there was an uninvited audience of about five passers-by who’d come on the scene accidentally and stayed. One, a young Puerto Rican taking a short-cut from the pool where he worked as a lifeguard, said afterward it was like walking into one of his dreams.

The piece was a narrative three-ring circus, about a woman trying to become an artist. In it, her present and past happen simultaneously.

It was called Rivers, First Draft because it was done quickly and I knew I would have to go back to it. It was always meant to be the first of a three-part piece called Indivisible Landscapes: Rivers, Caves, Deserts. But perhaps when I revisit it, it will be unrecognizable. For me now, the making of Rivers and what it uncovered was one of the most important moments of my artistic and personal life and could not have happened without Just Above Midtown, a nurturing space when others would not have us.

For me, doing Rivers in the context of Just Above Midtown was a (….)

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