Lorraine O’Grady’s ‘Both/And’ at the Brooklyn Museum

The binary of “either/or” can be seen in almost every facet of everyday life. Whether it is through the social construct of gender or the societal construction of race, the creation of the binary has often led to the idea of superiority, ultimately leading to concepts such as misogyny and racism that currently run rampant in today’s society.

Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is showing at the Brooklyn Museum until July 18th. In honor of the showing, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a talk on May 27th with O’Grady alongside Zoe Leonard, a prominent conceptual photographer, whose work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Moderator Catherine Morris (Sackler Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art) highlighted how Leonard and O’Grady take their respective approaches to conceptual art and how the root of it all is the rejection of the binary.

Both/And highlights twelve of the significant projects O’Grady has produced over her 40-year career while debuting a new installation that exemplifies a crucial part in her understanding of the British empire and its impact on her worldview. Both/And speaks on how society has created an “either/or” outlook on how to interact with everyday life and how O’Grady looks to challenge it, leaving the audience to look deeper at their ideologies and how this has shaped their world perception.

Feminist conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady has rooted her work in rejecting the binary and creating a story within her work, effortlessly exhibiting the life of a Black woman who is multi-dimensional.  O’Grady’s awareness of this binary way of thinking started in her childhood. While raised by her Jamaican-immigrant parents, her New England upbringing led to this idea of her “New England mind” and her “Jamaican mind.” As noted in the Lorraine O’Grady Both/And catalog, her career has been deeply rooted in the counter-narrative arc. The concept of “triple consciousnesses” due to her parents’ Caribbean origins and the impacts of African-American and Euro-American culture impacted how she saw herself in society’s hierarchy of power. Another critical component in her upbringing was the impact of British colonialism on her parents. As she stated in the talk, her parents’ British colonialist way of thinking was intact, which was evident in their views on wealth and colorism. Ultimately this led to her rejecting her parents’ notions of classism and colorism, which can be seen throughout the exhibition.

O’Grady is not one to conform. Although she studied economics at Wellesley College and worked as an intelligence analyst for the Department of Labor and State in D.C., she always gravitated towards the arts. Her affinity for the arts can be seen in her early work as a rock critic for publications such as The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, which ultimately led her down the path of becoming a visual artist at age 45.

Notable work such as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980-83) (translated to “Miss Black Middle Class”) is a clear response to her own upbringing as the daughter of middle-class Caribbean immigrants. Mlle Bourgeoise Noire is a work of guerilla-art at its finest. O’Grady dressed as a beauty pageant winner while invading art spaces to hone in on the idea of duality. Although O’Grady depicted herself as a beauty pageant winner, she did not behave in that traditional manner when in these spaces.

This can be seen in the poem she shouted before leaving the opening of the exhibition, Outlaw Aesthetics:

No more boot-licking…

No more ass-kissing…

No more buttering-up…

No more pos…turing

Of  super-ass…imilates


Due to Outlaw Aesthetics being presented at a Black-run art space called Just Above Midtown (JAM), this was a direct call-out of the idea of respectability politics that is deeply rooted in Black culture. This idea suggests that if Black people want to be successful, they have to assimilate to white culture.

The installation titled Announcement of a New Persona (Performance to Come!) (2020) showcases O’Grady herself in a custom-made suit of armor, which was inspired by her interest in the King Arthur tale and her interest in European chivalry as a kid.

On the other hand, projects such as the Cutting Out the New York Times (1977) and Cutting Out CONYT (1977/2017) were pieces that came from an interaction with her doctor at that time from when she was going through a breast biopsy. To help her get through this difficult time, she used him as emotional support and decided to create the collage as an “imaginary love letter for an imaginary affair.” Once she started, she couldn’t help herself. The collage soon became a poem inspired by The Sunday Times. Each of the poems created speak to O’Grady’s idea of cultural and “love” labor. This can be seen in the collage of “Just the Two of Us” (September 11th, 1977) and a brief excerpt of the poem “discover the center and rediscover yourself/Summer is being held over/until the sun dies.”

The continuation of these themes can be seen in Cutting Out CONYT (1977/2017), which allowed her to revisit her early poems with new, deeper understandings of poetry, language and cultural theory. Ultimately, revisiting this piece gave the opportunity for O’Grady to experiment with art and poetry and recognize how they can simultaneously co-exist.

As humans, we are multidimensional beings. We shouldn’t have to choose what part to identify with because it will be a disservice to the human experience, and each element is equally important. Refusing the binary is necessary “because I never know which part of me will come to the rescue,” O’Grady stated.

Follow link to purchase the Lorraine O’Grady Both/And catalog.

© Jessica Bond (7/9/21) – Special for FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And catalog.

Tags: Both/And, Brooklyn Museum, conceptual art, Jessica Bond, Lorraine O'Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, Outlaw Aesthetics, Zoe Leonard

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Jess joined FF2 Media as a 2020 graduate of Temple University's journalism program. She has a passion for the arts and using writing as a tool to spread awareness on social issues, independent and small artists. She is a 2021-2022 Fulbright recipient to the University of Sussex, getting her MA in Media and Cultural Studies. She hopes to become an international journalist focusing on local communities and showing the beauty within them.
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