Today we remember the performance persona Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (Miss Black Middle Class) of Lorraine O’Grady, whose incisive critique of the art world’s persistent racial, gender, and class exclusions remains just as relevant. Making her first appearance as Mlle Bourgeoise Noire in 1980, O’Grady performed at exhibition openings at the Just Above Midtown gallery and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. She attended these events uninvited. Dressed in a debutante costume made of 180 pairs of elbow-length white gloves, O’Grady shouted poems of protest and lashed herself with a cat-o’-nine-tails made from sailing rope and white chrysanthemums. She called this prop “the whip-that-made-plantations-move,” a direct reference to American slavery.
“I guess I experience art as a way of discovering what I really think and feel. In an odd way, I also look to art to help me define my political beliefs. I find it so much easier to know what I’m against (monopoly capitalism, personal and social cruelties of every kind) than to know what I’m for. But the achieving of aesthetic form frequently gives me something in which I can believe, about which I can feel, ‘This is true.’ […] But the main reason my art is ‘political’ is probably that anger is my most productive emotion.”—Lorraine O’Grady, Performance Statement #1 (1981)