Artist brochure statement for Lorraine O’Grady / MATRIX 127, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, May 21 – Aug 20, 1995. Adapted from “Lorraine O’Grady, conceptual artist,” in Susan Cahan and Zoya Kocur, eds., Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and Routledge, 1996.
© Lorraine O’Grady, 1995
My parents both came from Jamaica in the 1920s. They met each other in Boston at the tea table during a cricket match in which one of my uncles was bowling. It was the post-World War I period of the great West Indian migration, and most of their compatriots had settled in Brooklyn. In Boston, the tiny West Indian community could barely establish and fill one Episcopal church, St. Cyprian’s.
At some level, I understood from the beginning that as a first-generation black American I was culturally “mixed.” But I had no language to describe and analyze my experience: not until years later would words like “diaspora” and “hybridism” gain currency for the movement of peoples and the blending of two or more cultures. ( … )
I rebelled against the conflicting values instilled in me. Although it may have been easy to say “a pox on all your houses,” eventually I realized that I had to inhabit each of them. Looking back, I can see that the diasporain experience, however arduous,
has been critical for my life and work. Not so much in the mixed details of my background as in the constant process of reconciling them. Wherever I stand, I find I have to build a bridge to some other place. This position, far from being unique, is becoming more and more typical. Soon we may all have to be bi- or even tri-cultural. ( . . . )
I believe that every culture is complex and differentiated by its history and that artists arrive at the universal only by attending to the specific, which is inevitably ambiguous. That is why I object to such concepts as “the authentic black experience” and “the spokesperson.” I want my work to be an example not of differences between cultures, a principle which seems obvious, but of differences within cultures. The latter idea remains unnecessarily embattled with respect to black culture, seen often as a monolithic whole. But complexity is true to reality. I subscribe to Toni Morrison’s non-binaristic belief that “art can be both socially responsible and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”