Introduction
by Kim Nguyen
Every research season has a different rhythm and energy to it—each one brings together a different set of participants, themes, and questions, and we follow wherever the work takes us, rather than overly determine our directions. This organic approach has not felt as necessary as it did this year, as we grappled with how to engage with one another and learned how to function in this world. It goes without saying this reading group took place during a global pandemic. There was—is—nothing typical about this time. Things remain vulnerable and uncertain and our conversations, and this season as a whole, do not exist in a timeless vacuum, exempt from history. This season exists in the context of our times and taking care of each other—mentally, emotionally, socially—remains at the forefront of our conversations as we follow the work of Lorraine O’Grady in the months ahead.

"Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline: Told to swing an incense censer, she stirs sand instead," 1980, performance, approximately 30 minutes.
"Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline: Told to swing an incense censer, she stirs sand instead," 1980, performance, approximately 30 minutes.
"Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline: The voice on tape says: “Mount and straddle tubs of sand, which are now touching. . . face audience," 1980, performance, approximately 30 minutes.
"Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline: The voice on tape says: “Mount and straddle tubs of sand, which are now touching. . . face audience," 1980, performance, approximately 30 minutes.


Between January and May 2021, a group of artists, writers, curators, and educators convened virtually to think through and alongside O’Grady’s work. Each month, different group members took the lead on the discussion, assigning readings, preparing presentations, and directing our attention towards a range of topics driven by the work. None of us are experts or were expected to become authorities on O’Grady’s practice. It was an opportunity for collective learning and engagement.

Lorraine O
Lorraine O'Grady reading group meeting, led by Kota Ezawa, Peter Simensky, and Leila Weefur, April 2021.


We asked, how can we think about translation across space? Especially in the context of diaspora, hybridity, and what O’Grady refers to as the “straddling of origin and destination”? We read Harryette Mullen, Sawako Nakayasu, Matt Richardson, and many writings by O’Grady herself. We discussed the significance of citational practices and the fictions in history and that multiple realities can exist. We talked about Adrian Piper’s The Logic of Modernism and Get Ready for the Marvelous: Black Surrealism in Dakar, Fort de France, Havana, Johannesburg, New York City, Paris, Port au Prince, 1932-2013, a groundbreaking conference exploring historical Surrealism in the African Diaspora and its relevance to contemporary art. We gave thought to how we access our hidden or disowned selves. We discussed the significance of The Black and White Show and Just Above Midtown and O’Grady’s lasting influence. We reflected on O’Grady’s career as a music critic and listened to the Allman Brothers and Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band. We referenced the work of Dr. Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois, historians who stressed the Africanness and Blackness of Ancient Egypt. We met with the inimitable O’Grady herself. We worked towards making truths visible. We thought about pleasure and joy and beauty and politics and what the archive cannot hold.

"Rivers, First Draft: The Woman in White grates coconut in her kitchen, with the fir-palm tree outside," 1982/2015, performance, digital chromogenic prints from Kodachrome 35mm slides, 48 parts, 16x20 inches or 20x16 inches each.
"Rivers, First Draft: The Woman in White grates coconut in her kitchen, with the fir-palm tree outside," 1982/2015, performance, digital chromogenic prints from Kodachrome 35mm slides, 48 parts, 16x20 inches or 20x16 inches each.


This space will not reproduce but rather acknowledge the incredible critical and art historical work that has already been done on O’Grady. This season had the fortune of good timing—it comes on the heels of the publication of O’Grady’s book of writings, Writing in Space, edited by Aruna D’Souza; and a comprehensive retrospective of her work at the Brooklyn Museum (March 5–July 18, 2021), which featured twelve of O’Grady’s major projects over her four decade career, including the debut of her 2020 piece, Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!). The groundbreaking exhibition was reviewed extensively, with multiple profiles and interviews, including ones by Christina Sharpe, Siddhartha Mitter, Catherine Damman, and Jillian Steinhauer. Accompanying the exhibition is a monograph that covers O’Grady’s four decades of multimedia exploits in race, art politics and subjectivity, featuring essays by Zoë Whitley, Malik Gaines, Harry Burke, and Stephanie Sparling Williams. The writing is contextualized by an extensive timeline with letters, journal entries, and interviews.

I also acknowledge the tremendous work that is already done in this department by O’Grady herself on her extensive website, which she considers to be an abbreviated archive but is quite thorough. The site is a comprehensive collection of writing, images, and detailed information about her practice, with documentation and reviews that track her work across live performance, video, photomontage, public art, and cultural criticism. Her work experience biography offers an honest, feminist approach to understanding the multiplicity of experiences that contribute to a woman of colour arriving. The piece, aptly, ends with “The struggle goes on and on.”


"Cutting out CONYT, Haiku Diptych 19," 1977/2017, letterpress from zinc plates on Japanese paper, collaged onto laid paper, two panels; 41 3/4 x 30 inches.
"Cutting out CONYT, Haiku Diptych 19," 1977/2017, letterpress from zinc plates on Japanese paper, collaged onto laid paper, two panels; 41 3/4 x 30 inches.


Rather than present an entire background on O’Grady, instead I offer a few aspects of her practice that I was drawn to, that led us to dedicating this season to her.

Firstly, her understanding and usage of language is something to greatly admire. Prior to becoming an artist at the age of 45, O’Grady’s previous lives included working as an intelligence analyst for the United States government, a translator, and a rock music critic for the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. These experiences, combined with her identity as a diasporic subject, have created such a precision in her use of language and the dualistic role it plays in the production of her work.

"Art Is...(Troupe Front)," 1983/2009, chromogenic prints, 40 parts: 16x20 inches or 20 x 16 inches each.
"Art Is...(Troupe Front)," 1983/2009, chromogenic prints, 40 parts: 16x20 inches or 20 x 16 inches each.


O’Grady shows how the work is not divorced from the writing, and she is constantly emphasizing that language carries meaning, it is not simply infrastructure around the work. I gravitate towards her reasoning for writing, so that the “work can persist.” When does writing become understood and known and when does someone become seen fully? And how this process of working towards seen requires many of us to invent language, to compose vernaculars that we don’t always understand yet ourselves, and yet we are also expected to pre-answer questions about why, its relevance, and what it means.

"The Clearing (left panel): or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, N. and Me," 1991/2019, archival pigment prints on Hahnmühle Baryta pure cotton photo rag paper, 2 parts: 40 x 50 inches each.
"The Clearing (left panel): or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, N. and Me," 1991/2019, archival pigment prints on Hahnmühle Baryta pure cotton photo rag paper, 2 parts: 40 x 50 inches each.
"The Clearing (right panel): or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, N. and Me," 1991/2019, archival pigment prints on Hahnmühle Baryta pure cotton photo rag paper, 2 parts: 40 x 50 inches each.
"The Clearing (right panel): or Cortés and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, N. and Me," 1991/2019, archival pigment prints on Hahnmühle Baryta pure cotton photo rag paper, 2 parts: 40 x 50 inches each.


Her interests in the diptych, or the both/and, and dialectical relations feel very situated within the conflicted existences of the diasporic, the kind of irreconcilable space between origin and destination. She creates tense parallels between art historical and familial lineage, acknowledging how cultural colonialism informs them both. It’s a kind of multiplicity that returns to her many previous lives and professions. How she writes about her past experiences and observations about the art world is both narrative and factual without being reductive. It takes such an expansive approach to understanding what makes us and how we are made.

Her work has dealt with the ways that racial hybridity and Black female subjectivity have been formative to the history of modernism, simultaneously addressing legacies of violence while also creating legacies for joy and reciprocity. Her influence in the early 1980s and how the significance of her work did not come into relief until many years later, speaks to her prescience and her impact, and is a reminder of how much we owe to Black women artists, writers, and thinkers for the language we use, the concepts that have structured our thoughts, that have guided us towards understandings of fundamental change and revolution, and how that very same language gets co-opted and weaponized and used inappropriately when people forget what their origins are. It makes us think more about what it means to be both too soon and too late simultaneously.

"Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!): Family Portrait 1 (Formal, Composed)," 2020, digital C-print, 50 × 40 inches.
"Announcement of a New Persona (Performances to Come!): Family Portrait 1 (Formal, Composed)," 2020, digital C-print, 50 × 40 inches.


O’Grady is unrelenting and unapologetic with her critique of institutions and their failings, and was unafraid to engage in the family argument. She critiqued other Black artists who she felt were reproducing the same power structures and openly used her platform as a critic to eviscerate white male artists to tackle the structural conditions, economies, and cultural hierarchies that allowed work to persist at the expense of others. O’Grady has said she “doesn’t believe in the deep deep deep truths,” that depth analysis is meaningless without breadth. It wasn’t simply about critiquing art historical omissions for her but also about generating a psychoanalytical read of how institutions and aesthetic production are used to discipline and maintain submission. This past year saw another brutal reckoning of institutions but many of the problems they carry now have persisted since their existence. O’Grady’s work provides an opportunity to look at this continuum, this endless loop, and imagine how we can take this up in our battles today. She says that the intention for her is not to bring about a “mythic reconciliation of opposites,” but rather to enable or even force a conversation between dissimilars.

"Mlle Bourgeoise Noire leaves the safety of home, from Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Goes to the New Museum," 1981, gelatin silver fibre print, 9 5/16 x 7 inches.
"Mlle Bourgeoise Noire leaves the safety of home, from Mlle Bourgeoise Noire Goes to the New Museum," 1981, gelatin silver fibre print, 9 5/16 x 7 inches.


The poet Natalie Diaz talks about the productive value of anger and how it is the feeling she relates to the most because of its sensuality. This feels aligned with how O’Grady writes about anger and rage and hate being intimately alongside pleasure, joy, and laughter. Not one without the other.

I leave this starting point with a quote from O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, which we hope can also be a prompt for this year.

Won’t you help me lighten my heavy bouquet?