Pelicanbomb. November 9, 2011
“Avant garde art doesn’t have anything to do with black people.” This statement made by one of Lorraine O’Grady’s acquaintances was the impetus for the artist’s 1983 performance piece Art Is…, which emphatically proclaimed that avant-garde art is black people, black neighborhoods, black culture, and black issues. The photographic documents of this performance are now on view at the New Orleans African American Museum as part of Prospect.2. They show O’Grady and 14 other African-American artists and dancers riding through Harlem’s African American Day Parade on a float resembling an ornate, gilded frame with bold black letters bearing the open-ended phrase “Art Is….” Participants on the float carried smaller frames, which they held up to the audience members as they passed along Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. O’Grady wrote years later in an email to art historian Moira Roth, “The people on the parade route got it. Everywhere there were shouts of: ‘That’s right. That’s what art is. We’re the art!’ And, ‘Frame ME, make ME art!’ It was amazing.”
A harbinger of identity politics in art, O’Grady’s use of the frame not only asked, “What is art?” but also, “Who chooses what is represented and how is it perceived by different viewers?” By putting black artists in charge of framing a predominantly black audience, the power of who makes art, who is art, and who perceives art is decided by the black community. In the history of western art, African Americans have been invariably depicted either as the other or not depicted at all. From the maid portrayed in Manet’s Olympia to the exclusion of black Abstract Expressionists from the famous photo of “The Irascibles” in 1950, the indelible lack of African Americans in the art historical canon is what gives credence to O’Grady’s performance. Years later, O’Grady would write, “[black bodies] function continues to be, by their chiaroscuro, to cast the difference of white men and white women into sharper relief.” By disallowing this fundamental contrast on that September day in Harlem, Art Is… redefined the relationship of African Americans both to and in art, allowing those present to celebrate themselves as works of art.