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Lorraine O'Grady

Artist 135 Lorraine O'Grady Performance art Cultural construction of Identity

Lorraine O'Grady (born 1934) is an American artist and critic. She 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."

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, first giving away flowers, then beating herself with a white studded whip, which she often referred to as, "the whip-that-made-the-plantations-move".

Whilst doing this she would often shout in protest poems that railed against a segregated art world that excluded black individuals from the world of mainstream art, and 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.

Whilst displayed on top of the float was an enormous, ornate gilded frame, while the words “Art Is…” were emblazoned on the float’s decorative skirt.

At various points along the route, O’Grady and her collaborators jumped off the float and held up empty, gilded picture frames, inviting people to pose in them.

The performance not only encouraged onlookers - primarily people of color - to consider themselves art, but also drew attention to racism in the art world.


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