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)