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Performing Identities

Artists ask, Who am I? Who are you? and demonstrate that the answers are not so simple.


Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire)

Lorraine O'Grady
(American, born 1934)

2009. Fourteen gelatin silver prints, Each: 8 1/2 x 10" (21.6 x 25.4 cm)

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,”1 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.”2

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 culture3 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.”4

Lorraine O’Grady, “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Performance Synopsis,” lorraineogrady.com, http://www.lorraineogrady.com/sites/default/files/Lorraine-OGrady_Mlle-Bourgeoise-Noire-Performance-Synopsis_moca-org_0.pdf.
Lorraine O’Grady, quoted in Linda Montano, “Linda Montano interviews Lorraine O’Grady for the Ritual section of her projected book, Performance Artists Talking. June 1986,” lorraineogrady.com, http://www.lorraineogrady.com/sites/default/files/Linda-Montano-Lorraine-OGrady_Interview_Performance-Artists-Talking_1.pdf.
Lorraine O’Grady, quoted in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” lorraineogrady.com, http://www.lorraineogrady.com/wack-art-and-feminist-revolution.
Lorraine O’Grady, “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Performance Synopsis,” lorraineogrady.com, http://www.lorraineogrady.com/sites/default/files/Lorraine-OGrady_Mlle-Bourgeoise-Noire-Performance-Synopsis_moca-org_0.pdf.
Lorraine O’Grady, “JOB HISTORY (from a feminist ‘retrospective’),” lorraineogrady.com, http://www.lorraineogrady.com/sites/default/files/5_earlyjobs.pdf.
Lorraine O’Grady, “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Performance Synopsis,” lorraineogrady.com, http://www.lorraineogrady.com/sites/default/files/Lorraine-OGrady_Mlle-Bourgeoise-Noire-Performance-Synopsis_moca-org_0.pdf.

The role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one’s public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

An Italian movement in art and literature, founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, characterized by an aesthetic that glorified the mechanical world, war, and dynamic speed.

A person whose job it is to research and manage a collection and organize exhibitions.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

On Becoming an Artist—and Joining the Struggle
In recounting the opportunities and challenges of her artistic career, O’Grady wrote that “becoming and being an artist is the only challenge I’ve never tired of.” Continuing, “When I started thinking about art in the 70s, there were basically no blacks in the mainstream art world, and only a handful of women. Later I was in feminist organizations that fought successfully to help change the art world’s awareness of this situation. But even though there are now a few blacks and many more women than there once were, contemporary art is still primarily a white male world. ‘La lutte continue!’ as they say in French. The struggle goes on and on.”5

Enough is Enough for Mlle Bourgeoise Noire
Among the poems that Mlle Bourgeoise Noire shouted at the Just Above Midtown (JAM) gallery reception was:

THAT’S ENOUGH!
No more boot-licking…
No more ass-kissing…
No more buttering-up…
No more pos…turing
of super-ass..imilates…
BLACK ART MUST TAKE MORE RISKS!!!6