The Weatherspoon Art Museum opens the first comprehensive retrospective of Lorraine O'Grady

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The Weatherspoon Art Museum opens the first comprehensive retrospective of Lorraine O'Grady
Lorraine O’Grady (American, born 1934). Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, Photo-doc 01: “Told to swing an incense censer, she stirs sand instead,” 1980–1988. Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Freida Leinwand).

GREENSBORO, NC.- The Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNC Greensboro opened a retrospective of pioneering conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady. The exhibition opened on January 8, 2022 at the Weatherspoon Art Museum and is organized by the Brooklyn Museum. Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And spans four decades of the artist’s career and features nearly all the artist’s major projects, including the Mlle Bourgeoise Noire trilogy, Rivers, First Draft, and Body Is the Ground of My Experience, plus a wide selection of archival materials on view for the first time. The exhibition also features the critically acclaimed new body of work titled Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!).

Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is the first comprehensive overview of the work of Lorraine O’Grady (b. Boston, 1934), one of the most significant figures in contemporary performance, conceptual, and feminist art. O'Grady is widely known for her radical persona Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and has a complex practice that also encompasses video, photomontage, concrete poetry, cultural criticism, and public art. The artist has consistently been ahead of her time, anticipating contemporary art world conversations about racism, sexism, institutional inequities, and cultural oversights. Her prescience has inspired younger generations of artists. Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And marks the first time O’Grady’s four decades of artistic output has been given its much-deserved institutional credit. The exhibition is curated by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, and writer and critic Aruna D’Souza, with Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Assistant, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.

"We are honored that UNC Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum is the first venue for this critically acclaimed exhibition, after opening in New York last summer,” said Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. “There is so much for us to learn from Lorraine O’Grady’s considered life and artistic output, including her daring, her forward thinking, and her courage to make an impact. These are all qualities we hope will inspire our students and community."

Juliette Bianco, the Anne and Ben Cone Memorial Endowed Director of the Weatherspoon Art Museum, said “Lorraine O’Grady has consistently challenged societal and artistic norms by creating work rooted in her own identity and experiences. We chose to mount this exhibition at the Weatherspoon to provide our students and community an unprecedented opportunity to connect with forty years of creative thinking, action, and artistic practice from one of the most impactful thinkers, writers, and artists of our time.”

Raised in Boston by middle-class Jamaican immigrant parents and educated at Wellesley College, O’Grady began her career as a visual artist at the age of forty-five. She had spent years working as an intelligence analyst for the United States government, a translator, a rock music critic for The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, and a literature instructor at the School of Visual Arts. In part, her encounter with the Just Above Midtown (JAM) gallery in the late 1970s (and its community of African-American artists and other artists of color) prompted her to begin her artistic career. Some of her most important early performances were attempts to lay bare what she recognized as the art world’s deeply segregated nature. At the same time, O’Grady has continually imagined her own history, body, relationships, and biography within a cultural landscape that often erases or obscures Black female subjectivity.

These parallel threads—of outward-facing critique and inward-turning self-reflection—are some of the many binaries that O’Grady’s work addresses. By putting seemingly contradictory ideas into proximity and refusing the possibility of resolution, O’Grady seeks to undermine the power and hierarchy that usually attaches to such oppositions as black and white, museum and individual, self and other, West and non-West, and past and present. The exhibition’s subtitle Both/And alludes to O’Grady’s ambitious goal of dismantling the either/or thinking that forms the basis of much of Western thought and its attendant structural inequalities.

Both/And fills all four of the Weatherspoon’s second-floor galleries. Alongside each of O’Grady’s foundational projects is a critical selection of materials from the artist’s personal archive, which shed light on the careful decision-making and ambitious intellectual range of her creative process. This ephemera, fastidiously preserved by O’Grady, is now housed at her alma mater, Wellesley College, and includes correspondence with Adrian Piper, Kobena Mercer, Lucy R. Lippard, and Martha Wilson, along with drafts of writings, journals, interviews, and photographs.

The exhibition begins in the Bob and Lissa Shelley McDowell Gallery, with O’Grady’s 1982 performance Rivers, First Draft, a conceptual source of many of the ideas that would go on to animate the artist’s career. A one-time performance staged in a secluded corner of Central Park before a few dozen spectators, the complex event lives on as a carefully constructed photo installation. Rivers, First Draft draws upon practices ranging from Dada cabaret and contemporary theater to West African Vodun symbolism to narrate O’Grady’s transition from child to teenager to adult artist. The performance speaks to the double bind Black women face, excluded from white spaces because of their race and Black spaces because of their gender.

A selection of the original collages from Cutting Out the New York Times (1977) represents O’Grady’s first works of art, created in the aftermath of a medical crisis in 1977. This group of twenty-six highly personal poems is words and phrases extracted from the headlines of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Both/And marks the first time the original collage poems are on public view. Also on view is Cutting Out CONYT (2017), a recent “remix” of the 1977 Cutting Out the New York Times, which distills the original collage poems into “haikus” in the form of diptychs.

Projects focused on O’Grady’s critique of the art world’s unexamined cultural assumptions and the institutional structures it has built to support them include Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980), Art Is… (1983) and The Black and White Show (1983), each of which pinpoint how the art world excluded Black people both as artists and as audiences. O’Grady made each of these works, produced between 1980 and 1983, while in the guise of her performance persona, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle Class). The character, an aging beauty queen wearing an evening gown made from 180 pairs of secondhand white gloves, appeared in O’Grady’s landmark guerrilla performances at both Black and “mainstream” (white) cultural institutions in New York City such as JAM and the New Museum. In Art Is…, she responded to a Black acquaintance’s assertion that “avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with Black people” by creating a conceptual artwork for the largest public Black space she could envision: a parade float at Harlem’s annual African American Day Parade. In The Black and White Show, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire invited thirteen pairs of artists—half of them Black, half white—to contribute works in a black-and-white color palette to her exhibition at the important Black owned Kenkeleba Gallery. In each of these works, the artist’s piercing critique of the racism and sexism of the art world established her as an active voice in the alternative New York art scene.

This gallery’s installation culminates with the newly debuted work Announcement of a New Persona (Performances To Come!), which offers a recontextualization of the driving concepts and complex narratives that form the basis of Lorraine O’Grady’s entire career. While much of the project remains secret, O’Grady says that the work consists of a four-part series of character studies in the form of life-size cartes de-visites for a performance she has been developing since 2013. Though it is a complete work in itself, the series also signals future possibilities for performances and critiques centered around the new persona.

The museum’s Gallery 6 features the 18-minute video installation Landscape (Western Hemisphere) (2010–2012), next to which the Gregory D. Ivy Gallery features photo collages from the artist’s series Body Is the Ground of My Experience (1992), including the diptych The Clearing: or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me. Perhaps one of O’Grady’s most controversial and misunderstood works, it imagines even the most intimate relationships between Black and white people to be inevitably shaped by the deep history of racism and colonialism in which they occur. Finally, the Guild Gallery offers a rare opportunity to see in its entirety Miscegenated Family Album, one of O’Grady’s best-known works.

Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is accompanied by a catalogue documenting the entire span of O’Grady’s artistic career, the first publication to do so. Concurrently, a volume of collected writings, Writing in Space: 1973–2019, edited by D’Souza for Duke University Press, brings together O’Grady’s extensive and important theoretical and critical writings.

Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is organized by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, and writer Aruna D’Souza with Jenée-Daria Strand, Curatorial Assistant, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.

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