The Presence that Signals an Absence, 1993

“On being the presence that signals an absence,” Essay in unpublished, photocopied catalogue for Coming to Power: 25 Years of Sexually X-plicit Art by Women. Curated by Ellen Cantor. Presented by David Zwirner Gallery and Simon Watson/The Contemporary, New York, NY, 1993.

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1993

“I don’t like it,” he says. “That’s not the way sex is supposed to be.”

He points at “Love in Black and White,” the right panel of a photo-diptych I call The Clearing.

But it is, I think. And it has been, often, for 500 years. I follow his finger and look at the white chevalier in tattered chainmail with a skull instead of a head. The knight’s hand proprietarily grasps the breast of an almost jet-black nude woman whose eyes look out beyond the frame and reflect centuries of knowing blankness and boredom.

“It doesn’t feel like that to me,” he says. This southern white curator is not going to take my diptych for his show. But his presence in my studio is proof of how far he and we have come.

Then he asks, “Are the two panels Before and After?”

He catches me off-guard, and my response is oddly diffident. Now I look at “Green Love,”

the left panel, the one he’s said he likes. A nude white male and black female are floating on air, coupling ecstatically above the trees.

Below them, on the grass, two mixed-raced children are playing tag while a gun, camouflaged on the lover’s discarded clothes, silently threatens the scene.

“No,” I say. “They’re Both/And.”

The curator gazes at me with an uncomprehending expression. Uncertainty is making me feel stupid. I know that when he leaves I will be able to construct an explanation. This is what I get for wanting images to take me someplace I cannot arrive with words. And yet the wordsmith in me wants to be defeated.

Later, when the curator leaves the studio, I look again at The Clearing. It has collapsed many of my love affairs, which I have only recently begun to view in historic and cultural terms, and has combined them into a single event in which beginning ( … )

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