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Showcasing the conceptual and performance art of American artist Lorraine O’Grady at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And exhibition presents the artist’s revolutionary expressions, poetic language, and profound commitment to dismantling the binary thinking that dominates society. On loan from the Brooklyn Museum in New York and as the first comprehensive retrospective of the oeuvre of someone the museum calls “one of the most significant figures in contemporary performance, conceptual, and feminist art,” this exhibition brings important, complex dialogues to North Carolina. O’Grady’s body of work – including her fascinating, identifiable story and her deep, theoretical thinking – is threaded together by the conversation of replacing strict “either/or” ways of thinking that are ingrained in traditional Western frameworks with a perpetual loop of “both/and.” We do not have to categorize anything or anyone as “either this or that” – why can’t we be “both this and that?” This pulse of non-exclusivity paired with the prevalence of the diptych as anti-dualistic throughout the various projects presented in the exhibition challenges the binary thinking of “othering.”
Taking over the entire second floor of the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the galleries and the hallway are filled with chromogenic photographs of O’Grady’s work and numerous archival materials such as typewritten and handwritten letters, work plans, notes, and outlines. These items transport the viewer into the artist’s mindset and serve to disclose her wide variety of projects, and her tendency to revisit them. In the first gallery on left, the 48 frames of O’Grady’s first performance, Rivers, First Draft (1982/2015), are immersive as the cohesive story surrounds the viewer. Each photograph, in sequence, explores three narratives of the artist’s life, including her coming-of-age in Boston’s Caribbean diaspora, the origin of her feminist tendencies, and her initial encounters with art world politics. As the first work displayed in the show, Rivers, First Draft (1982/2015) acts as an introduction to O’Grady’s notion of “both/and” thinking.
Such “both/and” thinking is explicitly displayed in Art Is… (1983/2009). Building background for this piece, O’Grady is most well known for her performances and interventions as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middleclass) (1980-83). Dressed in a costume made of 180 pairs of white gloves from Manhattan thrift shops and carrying a whip similar to those used for slave punishment, O’Grady invaded art spaces in both the White and Black art worlds to critique the persistent racial segregation of the mainstream art world. For Art Is… (1983/2009), in her persona as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, O’Grady responded to an acquaintance's assertion that “avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with Black people.” I found myself particularly drawn to this performance in which, in 1983 at the African American Day Parade in Harlem, O’Grady fashioned gilded gold frames to frame the streets, buildings, and Black people of Harlem as art. The photographs, arranged in a grid-like fashion, of people along the parade route joyfully shouting, “Frame me, make ME art!” capture the joyous feeling that comes with seriously affirming art as relevant and meaningful as both an avant-garde concept and a form of expression within the Black community.
Revisiting her first visual art series, Cutting Out the New York Times (1977), in Cutting Out CONYT (1977/2017), O’Grady creates “haiku diptychs” through collaged news clippings and concrete poetry. The diptych, what the exhibition calls the artist’s “weapon of choice to oppose the West’s either/or binary,” fosters complexity in its pairing, and rather than serving as a method of contrast, the poetry is inextricably linked in conversation by sharing wall space. “Come out, come out, wherever you are… Relax. You can’t be replaced by a machine,” is just one bold result that transpires from visual analyses of language and direct challenges of binary thinking.
Thoughtfully given their own gallery space, the sixteen diptychs of the series Miscegnated Family Album (1980/1994) held my attention with a firm grip. Cibachrome prints of portraits of O’Grady’s late sister, Devonia Evangeline O’Grady, are juxtaposed with the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti. It was humbling to witness the intricacies and visual familiarities between ancient Egypt and the African diaspora. Just as O’Grady discovered during her trip to Egypt, there is a striking resemblance between her family and the sculptures and depictions of Nefertiti. Most poignant to me was A Mother’s Kiss (T: Candace and Devonia, B: Nefertiti and Daugther (1980/1994), which showcases the human connection that both roots us all in individual familial and cultural histories and unites us all as absolutely and inarguably human.
With the assistance of the artist, the exceptional curatorial vision of Brooklyn Museum organizers Sackler Senior Curator Catherine Morris, writer Aruna D’Souza, and curatorial assistant Jenée-Daria Strand was installed beautifully and creatively by Curator and Head of Exhibitions Emily Stamey at the Weatherspoon Art Museum. The Brooklyn Museum features large gallery spaces, and for this exhibition, the curatorial staff paired many of O’Grady’s works with others from their comprehensive collection, notably O’Grady’s Miscengated Family Album (1980/1994) with ancient Egyptian art objects. Altering the exhibition layout to fit such a different space while creating a similar context is no small feat. The result is effective at the Weatherspoon Art Museum as Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And exquisitely discloses and promotes the intention of O’Grady to reveal the inherent existence of Blackness within the core of Western modernism despite deeply rooted “either/or” frameworks that dispute such reality. As the only other venue for this seriously crucial exhibition, it is a wonderful delight to welcome such poignant work to an art space in North Carolina, especially one on a university campus where the local leaders of tomorrow can experience the “both/and” principle that is locally, nationally, and globally important.
Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is on view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum through Saturday, April 30. For more details on this exhibition, please view the sidebar. Two associated events of note are: