From the ‘80s to Now: How Lorraine O’Grady’s Work Continues to Inspire Change

Creative Capital looks to support artists at catalytic moments in their careers, or a moment in which the artist is ready to take their career into a new phase. At age 81, Lorraine O’Grady received a Creative Capital Award in 2015 for her project MBN—30 Years Later, which would reprise her famous persona Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire.

The reprisal referenced O’Grady’s guerilla performance across events in the 1980s New York art world dressed as a fictitious character, Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire (MBN), a woman who won an international beauty pageant in French Guiana 25 years before, but still dons the elegant pair of gloves, crown, and sash proclaiming her 1955 victory. Smiling and elegant, apparently oblivious to the decay and outdatedness of her wear, O’Grady’s character was like a time-traveler, catapulted into the art world where she noticed that the segregation between white artists and artists of color was even worse than her own time period. 

O’Grady debuted the persona at Just Above Midtown, a Tribeca gallery that featured Black avant-garde artists. After handing out white chrysanthemums to the audience, a bouquet revealed a “cat of nine tails,” a whip used often in plantations in the South to oppress enslaved Black people. She then proceeded to whip herself—and even developed welts on her back—while shouting “Black art must take more risks!”

The persona was a type of comedic and satirical disruption. As Rahel Aima recently wrote, “In her appearances, and as a curator, MBN did more than disrupt the status quo. Her hit-and-run performances laid out what the situation was.” As a music critic for Rolling Stone, O’Grady had a background in capturing the essence of arts scenes, which meant criticism was an essential part of her practice. She toured several downtown arts venues throughout the early ‘80s, for instance, at an opening of a survey at the New Museum, which had no artists of color. At the Creative Capital Artist Retreat in 2016, Lynn Hershman Leeson told O’Grady that she was at one of those performances, and if Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire had arrived five minutes earlier, Andy Warhol would have witnessed the performance.

Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire “did more than disrupt the status quo. Her hit-and-run performances laid out what the situation was.”

For her Creative Capital Project, O’Grady proposed to recreate the performance for a new era to comment on how, despite appearances, little had changed since the 1980s. “The current moment is a strange one,” O’Grady told Vulture in an in-depth profile by Jillian Steinhauer, “because you can’t say nothing has changed, but you can’t say that anything significant has changed.” 

Because of the guerrilla nature of O’Grady’s persona performance, MBN existed only through personal memory and photographs over the next twenty years—or as O’Grady put it in an interview with Juliana Huxtable, “it had to exist in the limbo of my imagination for the next twenty years.” When the internet came along, O’Grady saw it as a perfect opportunity to catalogue and archive the performance. She launched a website in 2008, with a redesigned site in 2016, with the help of Creative Capital. The launch of the website gave her new visibility, and soon after she became a gallery represented artist. The website, O’Grady found, was more than archival: “Even though I put the work up as something dead, it’s turned out to live in a more active way than I could have imagined. While for me, it’s very distant because the making was so long ago, it’s alive for others.”

The moment, then, was perfect for a retrospective of her work, which Aruna D’Souza began curating for the Brooklyn Museum. That show, open through July 18, pairs with a new selection of O’Grady’s writing and interviews, also edited by Souza.

Over the course of O’Grady’s career, the world has had to catch up with the message of her work. While the art world still has a ways to go to reach MBN’s aspirations from the early ‘80s, O’Grady has influenced a new generation. Her project Art Is… even inspired a victory commercial by Joe Biden, in which people around the country held gold frames to suggest that their livelihoods were works of art themselves. “Biden is saying the same thing to the country that I was saying to the art world,” O’Grady told the New York Times when the video launched. “We are a very large and diverse community and we all need to be included.”

The exhibition Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And” closes at Brooklyn Museum July 18, 2021.

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