Radical Acts

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Lorraine O'Grady. Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire). 1980-83/2009 295

Fourteen gelatin silver prints, printed 2014, Each, approx. 8 1/2 x 10" (21.6 x 25.4 cm). Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. © 2024 Lorraine O'Grady

Kerry Downey: This is Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, a persona created by the artist Lorraine O’Grady. This was O’Grady’s way of calling the art world out for continually excluding women and artists of color. I’ll hand it over to the artist.

Artist, Lorraine O’Grady: So here she is, dressed in her gown and cape made of 180 pairs of white gloves. And she’s also carrying a bouquet. And the bouquet is white chrysanthemums studded into the knots of a white cat of nine tails made of sailing rope. She’d begin to give away the flowers from her bouquet and she’s smiling she smiles and she’d says “Won’t you help me to lighten my heavy bouquet?”

After a while all of the flowers are given away and the bouquet has now become unapologetically the cat of nine tails or, what she called, “the whip that made plantations move.” And she begins to beat herself with the whip. I got a little over-enthusiastic and so I beat myself for about 5 to 10 minutes, so you know there were practically welts on my back.

When she first did the performance she shouted out, “Black art must take more risks!” because she’s been looking around and she decided that the art was very well groomed--a little too well groomed. She’d never encountered a world as absolutely segregated as the art world. Not just a social form of segregation, it was an intellectual and cultural form of segregation with this use of the word “quality.” But this was concealing a totally lethal combination of condescension towards black capacity and black relevance. Everyone seemed to have settled: “This is the way it is, we have to just do the best we can.” Unfortunately, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was not about settling. She was about breaking down doors.