1000 Words: Lorraine O’Grady
NEW WORK BY LORRAINE O’GRADY is already good news, and the world needs some. But word of a new persona stirs the kind of anticipation usually reserved for a famous comet rounding the sun. It’s been more than forty years since O’Grady’s radiant alter ego Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, dressed in a gown and cape made from 180 pairs of white thrift-store gloves and wielding a cat-o’-nine tails plaited with chrysanthemums, stormed the opening of “Outlaw Aesthetics” at New York’s Just Above Midtown gallery. On that day, June 5, 1980, O’Grady kicked off a three-year sprint of some of the most profound performative work of the twentieth century—from the early vernissage provocations to her curation (as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) of “The Black and White Show” at Kenkeleba House to Art Is . . ., 1983, her jubilant intervention in Harlem’s African American Day Parade, which graces the cover of this issue. The sudden occultation of this subversive spirit was as inexplicable as its emergence.
Now we have these mysterious pictures of a Knight boasting hybrid arboreal headgear. I wanted to know more about O’Grady’s cipher, debuting this month as part of her retrospective “Both/And” at the Brooklyn Museum, and sent her some questions, intending to edit her responses in the magazine’s traditional as-told-to format. She came back with the text below, more or less as is, a reminder that O’Grady is an accomplished writer and theoretician as well as an artist. She sometimes calls her art “writing in space,” which is also the title of her formidable book of collected essays, beautifully edited and introduced by Aruna D’Souza, published last year by Duke University Press. She’s electric with language.
Her Knight’s arrival presages that of another. “I sense that the true audience may be coming, not here now,” O’Grady wrote in a 1983 statement that also articulated the multidimensional “knowing” this audience might achieve. Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!), 2020, promises not just performances but audiences—what O’Grady, citing Heidegger, refers to as “preservers.” The work sets forth a blazon of gifts: A new performance by O’Grady is a felicitous invitation for us to grow into the role of true audience, to become the preservers the work deserves.
FLANNERY O’CONNOR once said something that I try to bear in mind: “The artist can choose what she wants to write, but she can’t choose what she can make live.”
So if O’Connor wanted to amplify the Roman Catholic vision of salvation, but the only lives she’d known intimately beyond her own were those of Southern Protestants, they were what she would use.
As someone who’d spent my life on the hyphen between Caribbean and American, I’d thought my work would be complex. But because Jamaican proverbs had blended with New England taciturnity and my family’s Episcopal church rituals were reinforced by Boston Public Library murals and reading Ovid at Girls’ Latin School, without my realizing it, thinking mythologically became second nature. Now, whenever complexity raises its head, I seem to rein it in because only simplicity and memorability work for me. And it feels like communication is more complete that way.
In 1978, after finishing “Cutting Out the New York Times,” 1977, I began seriously thinking of myself as a performance artist. My first project was to develop a three-part work called Indivisible Landscapes. The parts would be titled Rivers, Caves, and Deserts, and the surrealist actions composing them would happen simultaneously. In each location, a female persona would wrestle separately with issues of the body, soul, and mind: In Rivers, the Woman in Red would gain control over her physical habitus and learn not to see femaleness as a limitation, but simply to occupy it; and in Caves, a woman in a black Paco Rabanne–ish gown covered with reflective squares would gradually uncover her goals, finding a “self” to follow wherever it led.
But Indivisible Landscapes was impossibly ambitious, embodying a mythography that suspiciously replicated my own life. In 1980, before I could produce the parts together, the character from Caves appeared, not in black but in white leather and silk, as a persona called Mlle Bourgeoise Noire. By the time I presented Rivers, First Draft in Central Park in 1982, the story of the Woman in Red had become a prequel to the Mlle Bourgeoise Noire works.
Deserts was to have been a journey of acquiring the knowledge needed to execute one’s goals, become one’s self. But this is work that usually happens offstage, alone and unseen. The Deserts of artists and early Christians are filled with figures, named and unnamed, from others’ books and their own journals. I didn’t know who or what this character would be, as I was still living her. The project was set aside for thirty years. Then, in 2013, the curators and art historians Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson invited me to be in an exhibition on Caribbean performance and festival art. I proposed Indivisible Landscapes for four flatbeds in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. Deserts was still there. But now there was a fourth landscape, City/World, where the body/soul/mind shaped in the others’ dreams would come to life. Though the piece was not performed, the Knight was the character who’d emerged from the process unbidden. I may never know who it was that came out of the Desert.
Now the Knight is on the wall of my retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. The piece is called Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!), 2020, and is what it says. Composed of cartes de visite enlarged almost to life size, this first of multiple expected pieces debuts a new persona, one that will soon embark on a series of actions ranging from self-exploration to cultural critique. In its six images, you can see various character traits that define the Knight, who is wearing medieval European armor topped by headdresses emblematic of the Global South.
Two “Family Portraits”—one formal, the other “real”—show the Knight with her attendants. One is a toy wooden horse reminiscent of those in ancient European and Near Eastern folklore. The other, the Squire, is based on a combination of characters from the Jonkonnu festival of Jamaica, which my parents grew up with, and from the Wanaragua festival of Belize, where my maternal grandmother was born and raised before she moved to Jamaica.
The toy wooden horse will always be called Rociavant and the Squire’s name will always be Pitchy-Patchy, but the Knight, like legends of old and modern royalty, is known by a variety of sobriquets in different languages, depending on which character trait, action, or provenance is to be inferred: Lancela Palm-and-Steel, Lancela de la Ville, Lancela del Mar, Lancela Urbaine, and so on. Although the Knight’s given names and presentation are female in gender, she is always addressed as “Sir.” The Knight is never a “Dame.”
Lancela Palm-and-Steel is a reverse image of The Fir-Palm, a piece from 1991 that has a tree with a palm trunk and fir foliage, melding elements of New England and the Caribbean. In the Knight, the position of the Caribbean is inverted. Now it’s the mind, not the body. The two images are my way of saying the intellect and the body can be both, without gain or loss. One can live equally on both sides.
Howard Pyle’s illustrated novels of King Arthur’s court are the first books I read on my own, as a seven-year-old. And Joan of Arc has never been far from my mind. I’ve made the armor as feminine as I could. It’s based on a young boy’s suit at the Art Institute of Chicago and was forged by Jeff Wasson. Every part is supported by points on my body, so it doesn’t feel heavy. The heaviest part is the Caribbean headdress. I spent two years studying modern carnivals in the Western Hemisphere before finally taking off from an image in Isaac Mendes Belisario’s 1837 portfolio of Jonkonnu in Jamaica.
After developing the persona privately since 2013 while I continued to write and make new work, I will be relieved to have the Knight execute her first performance during my retro. Called Greetings and Theses, it’s an homage to Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, who will be there on her platform. The Knight is an avatar of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire forty years later, setting out to finish what she started. It will be a hard job. If you conceal everything—race, class, age, gender—what is left? What is possible?
People tell me my work looks as if it could have been made yesterday. To me, this is a sign that little has fundamentally changed. Even our successes stay safely bracketed. My tasks in art remain the same: to find ways to develop and maintain a rich inner life while standing firm in the attempt to overturn the depredations of the outer world.