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

  • Not on view

These photographs document a guerrilla performance in which O’Grady transformed into Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, a fictitious persona who, twenty-five years after winning an international beauty pageant in French Guiana, has invaded New York’s downtown art world. Inspired by the artist’s middle-class Jamaican origins, O’Grady’s alter ego draws from symbols of both societal acceptance and racial oppression. She dons a pair of elbow-length gloves, a dress made from 180 pairs of gloves, a tiara, and a sash proclaiming her “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire 1955.” By contrast, she also carries a cat-o’-nine-tails whip—an instrument of torture widely used in the Atlantic slave trade—which she has decorated with white chrysanthemum blossoms.

Mlle Bourgeoise Noire debuted in 1980 when O’Grady crashed an opening at Just Above Midtown, a black avant-garde gallery in Tribeca. Gliding through the crowd with a beaming smile, she plucked flowers from her whip and ceremoniously bestowed them on gallery-goers before flagellating her back—exposed by the deep cut of her gown—while shouting a poem that proclaimed, “Black art must take more risks.” In 1981 O’Grady performed as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire at a reception at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. In that iteration, captured in this portfolio, O’Grady protested the fact that no artists of color were included in the exhibition celebrated that night and recited a poem addressing the racial segregation of the art world.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

In 1980, artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady left her apartment wearing an evening gown and cape made out of 180 pairs of white dinner gloves and carrying a white whip studded with white chrysanthemums. She was going to a party at Just Above Midtown (JAM), an avant-garde art space in Manhattan representing work by African American and other artists of color.

At the gallery, O’Grady turned heads. She raised her whip—which she called “the whip-that-made-plantations-move,” referencing the slave drivers on Southern plantations—and gave herself 100 lashes. And she shouted poems of protest—against the exclusion of black people from the mainstream art world in New York, and against black artists who she believed were compromising their identities to make work that was agreeable to white curators and audiences. The white gloves covering her body represented the work growing out of this system as “art with white gloves on.”

With this performance, O’Grady introduced a new, fictional persona to the art world: a tempestuous 1950s beauty queen named Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, or Miss Black Middle-Class. She has explained that Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was inspired by the Futurist declaration that art has the power to change the world. The persona was generated out of O’Grady’s anger at the racism and sexism then prevalent in the art world, and her own, complex relationship to race. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she was raised in a privileged environment that contrasted with what she described as the “neighboring black working-class culture” and the disadvantaged position of blacks in American society. Through Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, she expressed the conflicts in her own identity, while also, as she stated, “invading art openings to give people a piece of her mind.”

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
Object number
© 2024 Lorraine O'Grady
Media and Performance

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