A 15 foot gold frame with a caption of “Art is…” underneath makes its way down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, stopping and starting. One of many floats in Harlem’s 1983 African American Day Parade, it is the only one offering the community the opportunity to be art. As the float progresses down the busy street, 15 dancers with portrait sized gold frames climb on and off the float, holding the frames up to capture the celebration around them. Everywhere there are shouts of, “That’s right. That’s what art is. WE’re the art!” and, ‘Frame ME, make ME art!” This experience was documented in photographs, 21 of them now on view as part of Soul of a Nation.
A teacher of Dada and Futurist art movements at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Lorraine O’Grady was fully involved with the concept of the avant garde – an experimental, innovative way of making art. She created Art is… in response to an acquaintance who comment that conceptual art doesn’t have anything to do with black people. “The concept was that, as people were being framed, they were being acknowledged as art in themselves.” In this work she brought experimental art to a public Black space.
O’Grady’s stunning photographs capture smiling faces and neighborhood buildings dramatically outlined by the antique style gold frames. The camera captures come people hugging and posing while other candid photographs show unsuspecting parade attendees observing the experience. In some images, the dancers–dressed in all white—hold, up the frames, framing themselves. The larger 15 foot frame mounted to the float outlines landmarks of the community, celebrating businesses, apartments, and cityscapes as it makes its way through Harlem. But who is the artist behind the concept of this work?
O’Grady was born in Boston, MA in 1934. Educated in Spanish Literature and Economics, she received her degree in 1956 from Wellesley College. She later studied fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. O’Grady had a variety of careers before she ended up working as an artist. Through her diverse education and professional development, she acquired a unique and analytical perspective on art.
A conceptual artist, performer and critic, O’Grady’s early work involved guerilla infiltration five years before the Guerilla Girls – a group of feminist artist that broadcasted inequality through unauthorized interventions. She took on the persona of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire – a personality she invented–and in 1980 and wore a dress sewn from 180 white gloves. As part of this performance dealing with institutional critique she handed out flowers, and hit herself with a cat-o-nine-tales reciting poetry to give Black artists and white institutions “a piece of her mind”.
Decades after her initial pieces were performed, her work is finally getting the full appreciation it deserves. This performance was recognized in 2007 as part of WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, and O’Grady’s work been included in art exhibitions at major shows in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Houston, and Paris.