On a very hot day in September 1983, the artist Lorraine O’Grady dressed in all white, pinned a pair of white gloves to her shirt, and joined the annual African American Day Parade in Harlem. The other participants were marching bands, Black community groups, and brands; O’Grady had entered her own float, an empty nine-by-15foot gold-painted wooden picture frame that she’d built with friends and mounted upright on a flatbed. As it made its way along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the frame captured the people and sights on both sides of the street within its gilded bounds. O’Grady had hired 15 young Black performers who walked and danced alongside it, carrying smaller golden frames that they held up before members of the crowd. Big black letters on either side of the flatbed proclaimed art is …
O’Grady, then 48, had decided to become an artist just six years before, after two marriages, an attempt at a novel, and stints as a translator and rock critic. She was still finding her footing, running up against both a white art world that ignored and dismissed Black artists and a Black one that, she felt, was sometimes too eager to play it safe. The float was a conceptual statement, a rebuttal to a Black social-worker acquaintance who’d told her, “Avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with Black people!” As Art Is … rolled by, Black paradegoers smiled and posed and mugged for the frames held up by O’Grady’s performers, shouting, “That’s right! That’s what art is. We’re the art!” “I’ve never had a more exhilarating and completely undigested experience in my life,” she later wrote.
O’Grady hadn’t publicized Art Is … , telling just a handful of peers about it; there was no review, no public feedback aside from what she got from participants. “I thought no one had noticed,” she told an art historian many years later. It wasn’t until the late aughts that she would pull out of storage hundreds of slides taken by friends and onlookers at the parade and turn 40 of them into an installation. Once it caught curators’ attention, Art Is … would become one of her best-known works, helping to cement her belated status as a trailblazer. It only took decades.
O’Grady is now 86, a warm and intellectually formidable presence. Dressing almost exclusively in black—often in a leather jacket and tight pants or leggings that hug her thin form—she wears chunky silver jewelry and favors red lipstick. She usually styles her dark curly hair up and forward in a kind of punk-inflected Afro (although the pandemic has forced it into a gray-and-white ponytail). She tends to lean toward you when she speaks, sliding smoothly between two levels of conversation: an accessible one, punctuated by her infectious laugh, and a more rarefied zone. She’s equally given to long, sometimes meandering stories and profoundly succinct expressions of complex ideas.
This is as true in public conversations as in private ones. Speaking at a 2015 conference at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, wearing a rubber gorilla mask as part of the anonymous feminist activist group the Guerrilla Girls, she delivered an earnest seven-minute dissection of the phrase “women and artists of color” and the way it leaves out people who are both. At the end, she quipped: “This problem is defeating us, and, I mean, it defeats me, because any time I try to get a language, it just doesn’t work on a poster!”
O’Grady has made art using collage, performance, photo installation, and video. She has written criticism and curated shows. She has studied Egyptology and European modernism. Through every medium and subject, she has built a body of work that asserts two key ideas: the centrality of Black women and their stories and the ways in which hybridity—of people, cultures, ideas—has shaped the modern Western world. These are also the central themes of her life, as a Black middle-class Caribbean American woman who has never fit neatly into prescribed categories. “I always felt that nobody knew my story, but if there wasn’t room for my story, then it wasn’t my problem,” she said. “It was theirs.”
Now the artist is the most visible she’s ever been—a situation that she’s still getting used to. In November, Duke University Press published a collection of her texts, Writing in Space, 1973–2019, and the Brooklyn Museum is set to open her first-ever retrospective, “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And,” on March 5. It not only gathers art from her entire career but also marks the debut of her first new performance persona since the early ’80s.
O’Grady and I have known each other since 2014, when she reached out to thank me for a blog post I’d written about her. When we logged on to Zoom on a recent Friday night, she was sitting at a desk in her apartment in Westbeth—a Manhattan artists’-housing complex where she has lived since 1976—that currently doubles as her home and office. She was in a narrow hallway between her tiny kitchen— I spotted an abundance of books, vitamin bottles, and Tupperware—and her “bedroom,” a makeshift nook with a bed wedged between a filing cabinet and two bookcases. (“This is terrible, isn’t it?” she joked.) She was more subdued than the last time I’d seen her, a few years ago. She’d been pulling a lot of all-nighters lately in order to work on the new performance, the book, and the retrospective. Still, her lower energy appeared to be about more than just exhaustion; she seemed circumspect about “making it” at 86.
“The current moment is a strange one, because you can’t say nothing has changed, but you can’t say that anything significant has changed,” she said. “ ‘The Other’ has remained safely bracketed as ‘the Other.’ ” If more Black artists—and, crucially, Black women artists—are showing and selling their work now than ever before, they’re still mostly working within systems that were originally designed to exclude them. The new recognition is exciting. It also throws into relief the decades spent without it. What does it mean for an artist like O’Grady, who has spent her career as a gate-crasher, to finally be welcomed in?
LORRAINE’S PARENTS, Lena and Edwin O’Grady, were both born in Jamaica, but they met at a cricket match in Boston in the 1920s. Lorraine was born on September 21, 1934, 11 years after her older sister, Devonia. The girls grew up first on an Irish immigrant block, then a Jewish one; the little West Indian community they were part of was centered on an Episcopal church. Lena and Edwin had both come from well-educated upper- and middle-class families in Jamaica, but upon arrival in the U.S., they’d been forced into working-class jobs.
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