How Lorraine O’Grady Left Her Mark on Protest Art

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The Brooklyn Museum boasts an art collection with approximately 1.5 million works of African, Islamic, European, Asian, Egyptian, and American art. The location is also home to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center, a space dedicated to feminist art. In line with the museum’s pursuit of a diverse range of art that elevates past and present voices, there is one artist whose work you’ll find both in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center and scattered throughout the rest of the museum — meet Lorraine O’Grady.

A Black female artist born in 1934, O’Grady worked as an intelligence analyst, a professional translator, and a rock critic before she began her artistic career. Her first project was the 1980 white glove project, a performance piece where she played the character Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, or Miss Black Middle-Class. She would wear a gown and cape made out of 180 pairs of white gloves, a tiara, and a pageant-style sash declaring herself to be Mlle Bourgeoise Noire. O’Grady made her first appearance as the character at a party at Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown (JAM) gallery, a space dedicated to showcasing work by African American artists and other artists of color. At JAM, she handed out white chrysanthemums until all of the flowers were gone and she was left holding a white whip, proceeding to flog herself with the rope while shouting an adaptation of a poem by Leon-Gontran Damas:


No more boot-licking…

No more ass-kissing…

No more buttering-up…

No more pos…turing

of super-ass..imilates…


Mlle Bourgeoise Noire was a beauty queen clothed in white gloves that represented internalized oppression as she preached to black artists and white institutions within the New York City art community about risk-taking. O’Grady continued to play this character until 1983, disrupting the art scene through protest and performance. She still speaks of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire in the third person.

The rest of O’Grady’s artistic projects focus on conceptual art, writing, and cultural criticism. According to the Brooklyn Museum’s website, the choice to display O’Grady’s work in galleries all throughout the museum was a conscious decision to highlight “the artist’s long engagement with art historical omissions and institutional failings related to the creative agency of those excluded from the canon.” Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And “replaces either/or ways of thinking with the endless loop of “both/and,” challenging the fixed positions of self and other, here and there, now and then, all while reflecting on the poignancy of lives lived within dualistic frameworks” from the perspective of a black woman with Caribbean, African, European and American roots. Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And is the artist’s first ever retrospective, an exhibition that showcases an artist’s work over a period of time, and it is long, long overdue.

Museum-goers are able to view 12 major projects from throughout her career as well as a new installation and five other projects that O’Grady has completed that are on display in galleries throughout the museum. Several of her pieces utilize newspaper clippings and headlines. Her collage cutout art can be read in multiple directions for varied meanings and interpretations, employing the diptych structure that uses two flat panels that come together to create a singular work of art.

The diptych is a way for O’Grady compare images in conversation rather than in an either/or structure that is reminiscent of a more Western binary that she has previously identified as white supremacist logic. O’Grady told Alexander Gray that “art is a part of my project of finding equilibrium. Of becoming whole. Like many bi- or tri- cultural artists, I have been drawn to the diptych or multiple, where much of the information happens in the space between.” Lorraine O’Grady’s examination of this in-between space is finally displayed in a long-overdue retrospective that honors her life’s work as an artist. The artist is 86 years old, and she is far from being finished.

Both/And is on display from March 5 to July 18, 2021, and can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Tickets are available for purchase at

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