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OnlineMay 07, 2024

“Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And” at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College

The major retrospective of the artist’s career embraces the contradictions and shifts of life while inviting new collaborations through performance.

Review by Alisa Prince

Photographs by Lorraine O'Grady adorn the white walls of a gallery.

Installation view, “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And,” on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 2, 2024.

A rock critic, an intelligence analyst for the US government, an instructor of literature, and a translator are just some of the paths Lorraine O’Grady explored between graduating from Wellesley College and becoming a leading conceptual artist working in photography, collage, and performance. Her work is devoted to consistently challenging restrictions imposed upon identity with regard to race, sex, gender, class, and national heritage. The first retrospective of her extensive career, “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And” premiered at the Brooklyn Museum in 2021. Now on view at the Davis Museum, it is a thunderous homecoming.

Visitors weave through the lower-level galleries in sections to take in twelve bodies of work from O’Grady’s oeuvre across four decades. The galleries feel like a maze, with many of the walls reaching only partially to the ceiling. Vitrines display objects from O’Grady’s personal archive: one presents a small yellow cap with the white numbers “55,” marking the artist’s class year at Wellesley, next to yearbook photographs of her; others showcase letters to fellow conceptual artist Adrian Piper, drafts of project proposals, and performance scripts.

The title of the exhibition, “Both/And,” describes O’Grady’s commitment to the infinitely expansive spiral that results from embracing overlaps, shifts, and contradictions. This stands in opposition to the prevalent notion that either/or must be. Indeed, O’Grady’s life experiences have eroded expectations of her identity at every turn: born to Jamaican immigrants, she grew up middle class in New England; as a Black woman she attended one of the most elite colleges in the country; and after exploring numerous career paths, she found her way to the art world in her late forties. The resultant works of art offer a comprehensive model of understanding, one composed of nuance rather than mechanisms to mask it.

Miscegenated Family Album (1984) interprets the artist’s familial heritage. The series of sixteen Cibachrome diptychs center the visage of O’Grady’s late elder sister, Devonia, and images of sculptural representations of Nefertiti, Eighteenth Dynasty queen of ancient Egypt, both of whom the artist recognizes as relatives. O’Grady effectively bursts open the conventions of the family album, typically understood to take shape only after the invention of photography, and seldom including images of ancient relatives. Analog photography is robust within the show, but rarely in its traditional form. It becomes a means to bridge disparate epochs, document performances, and create material for collage.

One of the most intriguing elements of O’Grady’s practice is that she revisits and reworks her projects. Showcased in two separate sections of the gallery are the collage-poem series Cutting Out the New York Times (1977) and Cutting Out CONYT (2017). Initially, she set out to explore her innermost self using the language of the Sunday paper by maneuvering text cutouts into poetry. Forty years later, O’Grady reflected on the inherent limits of the public-facing language of the newspaper. She returned to the 1977 project and “cut out” even more, distilling the poems and embracing her works as historical objects subject to reflexive critique. In large font for the later project, O’Grady twists the typically taunting phrase “Come out, come out, / wherever you are” into a warm invitation to be true to yourself.

Installation view, “Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And,” on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 2, 2024.

A woman in a green suit and a crowd celebrate as bills hang in the air overhead.

Ayana Evans, Sparkle #6: It’s Giving, Faroll Focus at the Science Center, Wellesley College. March 2024. Photo by Emily Levine.

Following this throughline of self-love and care, New York City-based artist Ayana Evans performed Sparkle #6: It’s Giving in the Faroll Focus, a sun-soaked atrium in the Wellesley College Science Center, as a part of Taking the White Gloves Off: A Performance Art Series in Honor of Lorraine O’Grady ’55. Curated by associate professor of art Nikki A. Greene, the series kicked off at opening night with a performance by Dominique Duroseau and includes performances by M. Lamar, Nyugen E. Smith, and Eleanor Kipping through the run of the show.

Dressed in her signature tiger-striped neon bodysuit and platform heels of her ongoing self-embracing public intervention Operation Catsuit, the artist conducted a crowd composed of students, faculty, and visitors. Evans’s work addresses social hierarchies, often challenging gendered forms of invisible labor, class differences, and racially marked constructions. With O’Grady in attendance, music played while Evans yelled, “Dance harder!” commanding the audience/participants to shake off any reservations and get into it. Evans moved about the open space shooting dollar bills from a gilded money gun. The music paused and she laid a neon mesh fabric with countless one-dollar bills affixed to it with safety pins and towels on the ground before handing out Korean face masks. Sternly, almost impatiently, she ordered, “Put the masks on.” While participants took up this ritual in self-care, Evans shot more dollar bills from the golden gun. During one part of the performance, Evans instructed the crowd to raise up the neon mesh, dollar bills dangled overhead. We danced down the path below the fabric and then took it in our hands, holding it up for the dancers behind us in classic Soul Train line fashion.

Unexpectedly, a massive beach ball fell from above. And then another. Evans tossed a half dozen of them from a balcony above the crowd, demanding that they not touch the ground. “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers played as giant beach balls flew overhead, volleying about the space. With the “joyous anger” that O’Grady sanctioned a space for several decades before, Evans heatedly directed the crowd. “Keep the balls in the air!” she shouted from the balcony. “Isn’t that what women and nonbinary people have to do every day?” Evans thanked O’Grady and declared that the elder artist’s work is what makes her practice possible.

Evans refers to the audacious style of guerilla invasions for which O’Grady laid the foundation in 1980 with her most famed persona, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire. With this persona, O’Grady foreshadowed what Kimberlé Crenshaw would later coin “intersectionality,” staging moments of reckoning with the inseparability of race, gender, and class. She rocked a crown, a sash, and a dress constructed from 180 pairs of white gloves, a symbol of cleanliness and sexual restraint, while clutching a cat o’nine tails—the whip-that-made- plantations-move. On one wall in the gallery, fourteen photographs by Coreen Simpson and Salima Ali document a 1981 Mlle Bourgeoise Noire performance, where she crashed an art opening at the New Museum to critique its exclusionary practices. We see the progression of events in pictures: Mlle Bourgeoise Noire leaves her home smiling wide; she arrives at the opening accompanied by her master of ceremonies; she sashays through the gallery and encounters supporters, skeptics, and friends; she whips herself with the cat o’ nine tails; and she shouts her poetry before leaving to celebrate with friends. As an artist, O’Grady lives up to Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s expectations.

A group of figures appear within a wooden picture frame, while a young person points directly at the camera, smiling.

Lorraine O’Grady (American, born 1934). Art Is . . . (Girl Pointing), 1983/2009. Chromogenic photograph in forty parts, 20″ × 16″. (50.8 × 40.64 cm). Edition of eight plus one artist’s proof. © Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In 1983 she courageously undermined the power of the white-run art world in Art Is. . . Working collaboratively with other artists, including David Hammons, O’Grady created a nine-by-fifteen-foot gold frame atop a gold-skirted float with the words “ART IS . . .” painted in bold black lettering along the side. It rode along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in the vibrant historically Black neighborhood of Harlem framing its street scenes and its people as art during the annual African American Day Parade. Fifteen dancers dressed in all white danced around the float holding more gold frames that they placed the viewing public within, answering their calls—“Frame me, make me art!” One large wall in the gallery displays forty photographs from the performance. A grid of thirty-nine photographs are displayed in landscape orientation, and to their right, the sole vertical shot depicts a young woman beaming toward  the sun and pointing through the gold frame that frames her back at us. This final frame includes a subtly sweet nod to her hometown: in the bottom left corner of the image, a child’s shirt reads “Property of Boston Red Sox.”

One cannot miss the colossal gold frame propped up near the front door to the Davis with two instant cameras. Echoing the message of Art Is . . . on Wellesley’s campus in 2024, visitors can pose in and around the frame and snap pictures, small keepsakes from the show. O’Grady invites us to join her legacy of subversion and to be both art and its arbiters.

“Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And” is on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 2, 2024.

This article will be published in Issue 12: Some Assembly Required, releasing May 18, 2024.

A black and white drawing of Alisa V. Prince smiling at the viewer. She sports a parted afro and circular earrings.

Alisa Prince

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