Catalogue essay for the Buffalo biennial on O’Grady’s two-part exhibit: The Clearing: or Cortez and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me, photomontage diptych, 1991; and her new complement to it: Landscape (Western Hemisphere)
by Carolyn Tennant, 2010
Not long after her diptych The Clearing, 1991, appeared as part of her first solo exhibition, Lorraine O’Grady expanded the work’s title as a way to explicate its meaning. Unlike other work featured in BodyGround, an installation of photomontages, this piece encountered a particularly negative reaction. In this investigation of interracial relationships, the artist uses the visual language of Surrealism to represent the white male/black female union. With its concurrent display of eroticism and domination, the work exposed enduring cultural anxieties. Most disturbing, however, was the resistance of some audiences to engage with the work at all. There was no debate about the work’s aesthetic or conceptual basis; instead, those who might participate in such a dialogue ignored it completely, censoring what proved too provocative. Dismissing the diptych was an attempt to silence it, but when O’Grady renamed The Clearing, she began a process of recuperation. Expanding the title to The Clearing: or Cortez and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me, the artist reveals her place in a larger historic trajectory: as both an African
Caribbean American with an inherited bicultural background, and as an active participant in interracial relationships.
The Clearing… demonstrates how the diptych, as a formal device and a conceptual tool, serves a strategic function in O’Grady’s work. The left panel presents a naked couple in an ecstatic embrace, floating in the sky, hovering above the trees; on the ground below, a young boy and girl—the offspring of this union—run after a ball as it rolls towards a pile of the adults’ discarded clothing, amongst which a handgun is seen. The right panel portrays a man and a woman on the ground in the same landscape, however, their bodies are arranged in a sinister pose. Clothed in chain mail, a skull replacing his face, the white man leans dominantly over the black woman’s naked body and fondles her breast. Her face is turned away, her arms stiff at her sides, her eyes fixed on the sky above. Rather than an attempt to negotiate different points of view, O’Grady uses the diptych to contain opposing forces. Once the “either/or” fallacy is revealed, the artist can reframe binary oppositions as “both/and.” In this way, O’Grady’s work dismantles Western dualism and . . . .
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.