Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces

Lorraine O'Grady. *Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noir)*. 1980. Four gelatin silver prints, each: 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). Performed at the opening of *Outlaw Aesthetics* (1980). Maren Hassinger’s *Palmettos* (1980) is visible behind O’Grady in the image on the right. Maren Hassinger. Photographs by Freda Leinwand. Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Lorraine O’Grady. Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noir). 1980 377

Four gelatin silver prints, each: 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). Performed at the opening of Outlaw Aesthetics (1980). Maren Hassinger’s Palmettos (1980) is visible behind O’Grady in the image on the right. Photographs by Freda Leinwand. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Linda Goode Bryant: When Lorraine first walked into Just Above Midtown, I have to say, I felt her energy right away. Mlle Bourgeoisie was her first performance, where she created this character and then came into the gallery and everybody was like, “Whoa!” Mademoiselle Bourgeoisie’s point was we must take risks as African American artists.

Curator, Thomas (T.) Jean Lax: Artist, Lorraine O’Grady describes performing as her character:

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. She’d begin to give away the flowers from her bouquet and she smiles and she 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.

When she first did the performance, she shouted out, “Black art must take more risks!” 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.

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