Lorraine O'Grady

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Lorraine O'Grady
Ogrady 1.jpg
Lorraine O'Grady, 2014 by Elia Alba
Born 1934
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Known for The Adopted Persona of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire
Style Conceptual Art,
Performance Art,
Installation Art

Lorraine O'Grady (born 1934 in Boston) is a New York-based artist and critic, who works in conceptual art and performance art that integrates photo and video installation. Her work explores the cultural construction of identity - particularly that of black female subjectivity - as shaped by the experience of diaspora and hybridity. Regarding the purpose of art, O'Grady has observed: "I think art’s first goal is to remind us that we are human, whatever that is. I suppose the politics in my art could be to remind us that we are all human."[1]

Life and work[edit]

O'Grady was born in Boston to Jamaican parents, who helped establish St. Cyprian's, the first West Indian Episcopal church in Boston.[1] Drawn to the form and aesthetics of the "high church" of nearby St. John's of Roxbury Crossing, O'Grady recalls: "I was permanently formed by the aesthetics of that experience, of the rituals, which are a more stately and elegant version of Roman Catholicism. I did believe until my mid-twenties, until my sister [Devonia] died, then I stopped believing."[1] As a young adult, O'Grady studied economics and Spanish literature at Wellesley College before becoming an artist in 1980.[2]

In the 1980s, she created the persona of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, who invaded art openings wearing a gown and a cape made of 180 pairs of white gloves,[3] first giving away flowers, then beating herself with a white cat-o-nine-tails and shouting out poems that railed against a still-segregated art world which she perceived as not looking beyond a small circle of friends. In 1983, she choreographed a participatory performance called Art Is..., which consisted of a parade float she entered in the annual African-American Day Parade in Harlem. The float was shepherded up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard by "O’Grady [in character as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire] and a troupe of 15 African-American and Latino performers, dressed all in white, [who] walked around the float carrying empty gold picture frames."[4] The performance not only encouraged onlookers - primarily people of color - to consider themselves art, but also drew attention to racism in the artworld.[4] Beginning in 1991 she added photo installations to her conceptually based work.[2] And in 2007, she made her first video installation during a residency at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas.

Her strongly feminist work has been widely exhibited, particularly in New York and Europe. O'Grady's early Mlle Bourgeoise Noire performance was given new recognition when it was made an entry-point to the landmark exhibit WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,[5] the first mainstream museum show of this groundbreaking art movement. Her practice, seemingly located at and defining the cusp between modernism and a "not-quite-post-modernist" present, has been the subject of steadily increasing interest since it received a two-article cover feature in the May 2009 issue of Artforum magazine. In December 2009, it was given a one-person exhibit in the U.S.'s most important contemporary art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach. Subsequently, O'Grady was one of 55 artists selected for inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.[6] Her work has since featured in many seminal exhibitions, including: "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s; Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art.,[7] and "En Mas': Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean."

O'Grady first exhibited at the age of 45, after successful careers among others as a government intelligence analyst, literary and commercial translator, and rock critic. This background contributed to an unusually broad perspective in her work as both an artist and writer.[8] In addition to the articles she has written for such publications as Artforum magazine and Art Lies, her canonical essay, "Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity," has now been anthologized numerous times, most recently in Amelia Jones, (ed.), The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd Edition, Routledge, 2010).

O'Grady lives and works in the Meatpacking District of New York City.


In 1995–96, O'Grady held the Bunting Fellowship in Visual Art at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. There she became immersed in the internet during its early years. Her own website, lorraineogrady.com, not inaugurated until 2008, is a model of artist archival design.

Since 1997, O'Grady has been a Senior Fellow of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, New School University. She has received many awards, including, in 2009, the Anonymous Was A Woman award,[9] a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship in Visual Art in 2011,[10] the College Art Association's Distinguished Feminist Award in 2014, and a Creative Capital Award in Visual Art in 2015.


O'Grady has work in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NY; The Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley; MA Fogg Museum at Harvard, Cambridge, MA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, and Worcester Art Museum, MA.

Pop culture references[edit]

A review by O'Grady of the night Bob Marley and the Wailers opened for Bruce Springsteen at Max's Upstairs in Manhattan, July 18, 1973, was rejected at the time by her Village Voice editor, who said "It's too soon for them." The review was first published nearly 40 years later in Max's Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll, 2010, a photo book with texts by Lou Reed, Lenny Kaye, Danny Fields, Lorraine O’Grady, and Steven Watson.

O'Grady's name is one of those shouted in the hit song "Hot Topic," by electroclash band Le Tigre.


  1. ^ a b c "LORRAINE O'GRADY with Jarrett Earnest". www.brooklynrail.org. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  2. ^ a b Linda M. Montano, Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties, University of California Press, 2000, p. 513. ISBN 0-520-21022-0
  3. ^ Art in America, July 1994 (Volume 82, Number 7)[dead link]
  4. ^ a b "In and Out of Frame: Lorraine O'Grady's "Art Is…"". Hyperallergic. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  5. ^ Cotter, Holland (September 26, 2008). "Art in Review". New York Times. 
  6. ^ "2010 Whitney Biennial". Whitney Museum of American Art. Retrieved May 22, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Radical Presence NY". Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Retrieved May 22, 2015. 
  8. ^ "Works in Progress". The New York Times. May 15, 2015. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 22, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Past Award Winners". www.anonymouswasawoman.org. Retrieved May 22, 2015. 
  10. ^ United States Artists Official Website Archived February 3, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.

External links[edit]