When I interviewed the groundbreaking black feminist performance and visual artist Lorraine O'Grady over the phone in April, she started our conversation with the question all Bostonians ask each other: "Where did you go to school?" Boston is a surprisingly small, insular city, and the high schools serve as immediate shorthand for your race, age, and class level. I went to a tiny, formerly radical and experimental private school that was painstakingly trying to transform itself into a respectable prep school. O'Grady graduated from Girl's Latin (now Boston Latin Academy), a 150-year-old public school famous for its academic rigor, and a symbol of the kind of egalitarian access to education and learning that represents the best traditions of the city.
But O'Grady is so much more than all that. Her photo installation Miscegenated Family Album is basically a compendium of all the things I'm drawn to: family, matriarchy, the complicated relationship between sisters, and the profound loneliness and loss that is felt when those tangled bonds are broken.
O'Grady has been an influential artist for nearly 30 years. Beginning as a performance artist, she'd show up at the blindingly white galleries of 1980s New York as the character "Mlle Bourgeoise Noire," dressed in a cape made of 180 pairs of white opera gloves, whipping herself with a white cat-o'-nine-tails and calling out — in poetry form, no less — the racial bias and segregation in the art world. Her 1970s series Cutting Out The New York Times, a series of found poems using only the text of The New York Times from a week in 1977, finds its echoes in the work of contemporary black women artists like Alexandra Bell, with her New York Times police-brutality-coverage pieces. O'Grady's essay "Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity" set the groundwork for describing the ways black women's bodies are erased, ignored, and distorted in Western art.
She's lived many lives: O'Grady was a translator for decades, as well as a federal intelligence analyst and a rock critic (she was one of the first to review Bob Marley and the Wailers). Topping all that, she's name-checked in the enduring single "Hot Topic" from Le Tigre's first album — her name is chanted alongside those of other women artists who defy categorization like Yoko Ono, Vaginal Crème Davis, and Kara Walker.
I was lucky enough to talk with O'Grady as her work was about to be highlighted again, in We Wanted a Revolution, a collection of second-wave black feminist artists at the Brooklyn Museum through September.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: I've been a fan of your work for a long time. I saw some photos from a piece you did at the Schomburg about six years ago. And then, of course, in high school I listened to "Hot Topic" all the time —
Lorraine O'Grady: I think I've gotten more attention for that than anything else I have in my entire career. I love that. When you get hooked up with popular culture in that way … I don't know what the end result of it is, but it's kind of interesting, you know?
KG: I was reading that you worked as a government intelligence analyst before you became an artist. Is that right?
LO: Actually, to be honest with you, I had an unusual time in college. I basically had to drop out when I was a sophomore because I got pregnant. And then I came back and I finished a year late, but I finished nonetheless.
I think my parents were absolutely determined that I would become a lawyer. That was their big plan … my parents thought I would become the first black congresswoman.