For more than four decades, Lorraine O’Grady (b.1934) has challenged cultural conventions. Her multidisciplinary practice utilizes the diptych as both a tool for institutional critique and a conceptual framework to interrogate Western society. As she argues, “With the diptych, there’s no being saved, no before and after, no either/or; it’s both/and, at the same time.” Insisting on both/and, for O’Grady, the diptych presents a constant exchange between equals, forwarding “miscegenated thinking” by eroding hierarchical oppositions. This thinking, which seeks to confront the limitations of a culture built on exclusivity and resistance to difference, advocates for concepts like hybridity, gender fluidity, and process rather than resolution.
Born in Boston to West Indian parents, O’Grady was a talented scholar. She was educated at the Girls Latin School before studying economics and Spanish literature at Wellesley College (class of 1955). While still a student, she passed the US government’s challenging Management Intern Program (MIP) exam and worked as a Research Economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1961, O’Grady left her post in the US government to write fiction, ultimately entering the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1965. By the late 1960s, she was working in Chicago at a commercial translation agency while volunteering for Jesse Jackson and his organization Operation Breadbasket. However, after opening her own translation agency and fulfilling large contracts for Playboy and Encyclopædia Britannica, she decided to abandon her career as a translator. “Translation . . . requires talent and intelligence,” O’Grady observes. “And if I had those qualities, I didn't want to use them in the service of someone else’s work . . . I wanted to use them to express myself and contribute to making change.” In the 1970s, O’Grady moved to New York and became a critic for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, reviewing acts like the Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. After growing dissatisfied with her role in the music world, she accepted an offer to teach literature at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). There, she describes, “I felt I was home. I knew I was an artist.”
In the late 1970s, deeply influenced by the Futurists, Dadas, and Surrealists, whose texts and images she would teach at SVA for two decades, O’Grady produced her first artwork, Cutting Out the New York Times (1977). By the early 1980s, O’Grady had become an active voice in New York’s alternative art scene. While volunteering at the Black avant-garde gallery Just Above Midtown, she produced work that critically reflected on race, class, and social identity. In her performance Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1980–83), O’Grady pioneered institutional critique, attacking the racial apartheid of the mainstream art world. In 1982, she staged perhaps her most important performance, Rivers, First Draft. Inspired in part by Maya Deren’s 1953 text Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti, a sourcebook on the culture and spirituality of Haitian Vodun, the artist describes the performance as a “collage-in-space” with different actions occurring simultaneously. Engaging with the Vodun concepts of the Crossroad and the Marassa, the divine twins who symbolize the divided self, the work sought to unite O’Grady’s conflicting identities as both a native New Englander and child of Caribbean parents. At the same time, by structuring the performance around three separate narratives represented by three different versions of herself, she outlined the conditions that led her to enter the art world.
In the 1990s, O’Grady was a member of the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), where she called for a more diverse and inclusive approach to feminism that incorporated the perspectives and concerns of women of color. Championing hybrid subject positions, in series like Miscegenated Family Album (1980/1994) and Body Is the Ground of My Experience (1991), she addressed issues surrounding class, gender, racism, and ethnography. Constructing what she calls a “novel in space,” Miscegenated Family Album consists of 16 diptychs, pairing the artist's family with ancient Egyptian imagery of Nefertiti and her relations. Weaving together narratives that connect personal stories with past events, O’Grady presents both families—one ancient and royal, one modern and descended from slaves—as products of shared forces of migration and hybridization.
Further mapping the intertwining of histories and identities, Landscape (Western Hemisphere) (2010/2011) adapts and plays with the diptych. Abstracting O’Grady’s waving hair and transforming it into an evocative landscape, this video collapses the both/and structure of the diptych into a single frame. Solely recording the artist’s tresses, whose textured curls reveal both her African and European ancestry, Landscape positions the diptych as a theoretical structure, which, in O’Grady’s words, “advocates for the kind of miscegenated thinking that’s needed to deal with what we’ve already created.”
Also forwarding “miscegenated thinking,” recent series like Cutting Out CONYT (1977/2017) repurpose O’Grady’s 1977 found newspaper poems, Cutting Out the New York Times, as a series of “haiku diptychs.” Utilizing the format’s both/and presentation to overcome apparent oppositions between O’Grady’s artistic voices, which she has alternately identified as personal/political, expressive/argumentative, and post-Black/Black, Cutting Out CONYT challenges Western culture’s reductive binarism. As O’Grady concludes, “There was no extrication of the personal from the political, because these qualities were not opposite but obverse and reverse of the same coin. Even categorizing the divisions and splits was a regression back into hierarchies.”
O’Grady’s work will be the subject of a 2024 retrospective Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And at Davis Museum, Wellesley College, MA. The exhibition was previously presented at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC in 2022, and the Brooklyn Museum, New York in 2021. Other one-person exhibitions of her work include From Me to Them to Me Again, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art, GA (2018); Family Gained, Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston (2018); Lorraine O’Grady: Initial Recognition, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Monastery de Santa María de las Cuevas, Seville, Spain (2016); and Lorraine O’Grady: When Margins Become Centers, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (2015). Her work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions, including Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2022); Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery, London (2018), traveled to Grand Palais, Paris (2018), The Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany (2019), and Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (2019); Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017), traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK (2018), Brooklyn Museum, NY (2018), The Broad, Los Angeles (2019), de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA (2019), and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (2020); and We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–85, Brooklyn Museum, NY (2017), traveled to California African American Museum, Los Angeles (2017), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY (2018), and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston (2018). Her work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Tate Modern, London, among others. She has been a resident artist at Artpace San Antonio, TX, and has received many awards, Arts and Letters Award in Art, New York (2023); Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art (2022); Skowhegan Medal for Conceptual and Cross-Disciplinary Practices (2019); Francis J. Greenburger Award (2017); Creative Capital Award in Visual Art (2015); Lifetime Achievement Award from Howard University, Washington, D.C. (2015); Distinguished Feminist Award, College Art Association, New York (2014); Art Matters Grant (2011); a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship (2011); and Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2008), among others. In addition to her work as a visual artist, she has also made innovative contributions to cultural criticism with her writings, including the now canonical article, “Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity.” A book of her collected writings, Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space, published by Duke University Press, was released in 2020.