I had the opportunity to go to the Weatherspoon Art Museum twice to see the current exhibition displaying Lorraine O’Grady’s work. The exhibition is titled “Both/And” which is commenting on the entire idea of what O’Grady is attempting to do with her work, where she challenges many avenues of philosophical, political, and societal belief by directly comparing two things, not to show how different they are, but to show how similar they are and how they can coexist. O’Grady is an African-American woman, which is important to the messages within her work. Most of her work involves challenging the normalized belief that white people are superior to Black people or that men are superior to women.
She has one particular work called “Rivers, First Draft, or The Woman in Red (1982/2015)” where there are many photographs taken in a park where she has a cast of characters and a script that they follow. As the actors act out the script, they are able to have their pictures taken of the actions. In other words, it sort of plays out like a movie, but with still pictures instead of moving ones. In this sense, one is forced to sit with the individual moments that are shown, and they must dissect the sounds and dialogue going on in the scene. There are descriptions as to what is going on in each scene.
Now, the story is very interesting and is definitely abstract, so my idea of what is going on is probably incorrect. But I believe that the main idea of the work is about feminism and allowing women to make their own decisions in life without being forced to make them from anyone else, especially men. The colors in the photographs are wonderful, and the characters (some of them) are identified with those colors. One, in particular, is the woman in the red dress. The red of her dress, to me, represents a sort of anger or even a fiery passion to be free of the chains that hold her in social constructs. Whatever these colors may mean, the actors in the photographs fill the images with emotion.
Another work she has is called “Art is… (1983/2009)” which is a series of photographs taken at an African-American parade in New York in 1983. The idea here is that O’Grady was trying to prove that African-Americans are art just as much as anything else, or as she stated to a reporter: “Avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with black people.” Thus, she proceeded to make a giant frame, literally giant, that was on a float and she was able to capture amazing photographs through this giant frame. From this, beautiful artistic images were created. Then, she was able to have many small frames and she would walk up to people at the parade and make them art by putting the frame in front of them. This is probably one of O’Grady’s most famous works, for the vivid photos and the social and political message it engenders. The best photo is probably the last photo, with a girl pointing to the camera through the frame, and in the background, there is a large group of African-Americans. The photo is so perfectly beautiful and yet simple, but full of inner complexity that one can only stand in awe as one realizes that art is around us every day, and one must not deny that everyone can be a part of it, no matter your social status, gender, race, or anything else.
One final piece that really struck me was the selection of her poetry. This poetry was different, called “Cutting out CONYT,” as there was a printed copy on paper in a display case, however, the main piece of work was made up of small papers enlarged to massive portions so that one becomes intimidated by their statements. Not only this, but the poems are entirely made up of newspaper cutouts of headings, blurbs, phrases, and whatnot. The different poems, taken from the news of the day, take what people are using to describe the news and O’Grady is developing a new way to look at it. By putting these cutouts in a specific placement, one is able to see the bigger, artistic, and philosophical pictures of the day in which these newspapers were released. She is able to beautifully construct a poem out of something that someone may not find any poetry in at all.
If you want to find out more about Lorraine O’Grady and her life’s work check out her website at https://lorraineogrady.com/. To find out more about the exhibit at the Weatherspoon you can go to https://weatherspoonart.org/.