Rivers, First Draft was a one-time only performance created by O'Grady for "Art Across the Park," curated by Gilbert Coker and Horace Brockington. It was performed in the Loch, a northern section of Central Park, on August 18, 1982 and was a "collage-in-space," with different actions taking place simultaneously on two sides of the stream and further up the hill. The narratives that competed for attention were about uniting two different heritages, the Caribbean and New England, and three different ages and aspects of the self, a young girl, a teenager, and an adult woman. It was a three-ring circus of movement and sound that, unlike the random-ness of Futurists attempting to shout each other down, played more like a unitary dream.
The emotional effect of Rivers, First Draft was more positive and hopeful than that of O'Grady's previous performance, Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, which was about failure to effect reconciliation with the dead, even about failure to perform, with its final image of the artist trying but being unable to straddle two tubs of sand. The pivotal moment of Rivers, First Draft occurs after the Woman in Red has been ejected by the Black Male Artists from their closed studio: she descends to the stream bank where she sees a white stove and claims it by painting it red. O'Grady's most personal and feminist piece to date, the performance ends in an image of acceptance and reconciliation as the Little Girl in a Pink Sash, the Teenager in Magenta, and the Woman in Red help each other exit down the Loch stream. Perhaps not so contradictorily, the figures are actively guided by the male New England figure, the Nantucket Memorial statue, while the female Caribbean figure, the Woman in White, continues to endlessly grate coconut, calmly indifferent to the scene unfolding below.
The performance was seen by a small invited audience, mostly friends from Just Above Midtown, and occasional pedestrians walking through the seldom visited Loch.
© Lorraine O'Grady 1982
Published in the Heresies collective’s journal, this was O’Grady’s first attempt to deal publicly with issues of black female subjectivity. It is based firmly in personal anecdote and psychological description rather than the more theoretical analysis she would later employ.
"Which would you guess was the biggest category?" I asked as I handed my new black woman therapist the organization chart I'd made of nine months' worth of dreams.
I'd finally located her in September. Even in New York it hadn't been easy. Only one percent of the therapists in America are black, and I'd spent July and August going to one white therapist after another who'd ask the standard question: "Why have you come into therapy?" When I was too embarrassed to answer directly, they'd accused me of being an aesthete, of wanting to take a symbolic journey into self-discovery.
There was the estrangement from my son, of course. But even if I'd been able to talk about it. I couldn't have placed it in its deepest perspective by describing the specter standing behind not just my problems with motherhood, but those with my family, sex, and my artistic persona. With these male and female therapists I couldn't break out of the defense I'd adopted toward the whole white world, the mystique that everything was all right, that I had no racial problems. Even when I trusted their capacity for empathy, I couldn't talk to them about the subtle identity problems of a fair-skinned black woman, born and raised in Boston at a time when "social" blacks (the families who sent their children to Ivy League Schools) were still trying to be white.
Meanwhile, shopping for a therapist was becoming expensive. Jung had said that series of dreams were far more informative than dreams taken singly, and since I'd begun collecting my dreams at the beginning of the year, I now had nearly 150. To save time and money I decided to organize them. At the end of August, after saying goodbye to my last white therapist, I took my journal to Martha's Vineyard and arranged the dreams into 24 categories with names like Upstairs/Balconies and Downstairs/Basements, Papa, Mama, Devonia (my sister), Sex, Art, Fear of Ending Up Alone, and Blacks/Racial Attitudes.
The results were startling. The Blacks/Racial Attitudes series was the largest, with roughly 30 dreams containing the motif, 10 more than the next largest series. I knew I'd been kidding myself, as well as white people, about the extent of my problem, but seeing it statistically tabulated like this unnerved me.
The black woman therapist, Vassar-educated and 10 years older than me, looked over the list. "I don't want to guess which category contains the most dreams, Lorraine, because I don't know you. But," she hesitated, "experience would lead me to. . . could it be Blacks/Racial Attitudes?"
On Thursday, August 20, I was feeling depressed about Reagan, and paranoid about the fascism lying in wait just below the surface of the country. In my worst-case fantasies, the dragon breaks out and, as in Nazi Germany, gobbles up those closest at hand: assimilated blacks first.
That afternoon I wrote in my art journal a proposal for an installation to be called Walter Benjamin Memorial Piece (A Black Intellectual Gets Ready in Time), with a wall plaque containing the following quote:
On September 26, 1940, Walter Benjamin, who was about to emigrate to America, took his life at the Franco-Spanish border. The Gestapo had confiscated his Paris apartment, which contained his library (he had been able to get "the more important half" out of Germany) and many of his manuscripts. How was he to live without a library? How could he earn a living without the extensive collection of quotations and excerpts among his manuscripts? [Hannah Arendt]
Mounted on three dry walls was to be a life-sized photo reproduction of my library alcove (the shelves contain about 3,000 volumes). In the center of the alcove, my actual desk, extremely cluttered, a typing table and chair, and scattered about on the floor, a jumble of packing crates with labels not yet filled in.
That night I had the following black dreams. I made the journal responses a couple of months later and gave them, together with the dreams, to the black woman psychiatrist....
Unpublished email exchange, 1998The most comprehensive and focused interview of O’Grady to date, this Q & A by a Duke University doctoral candidate benefited from the slowness of the email format, the African American feminist scholar’s deep familiarity with O’Grady’s work, and their personal friendship.
© Lorraine O’Grady 1982
In writing a proposal to perform Rivers at Judson Memorial Church, a venue with important avant-garde history, O’Grady unexpectedly reached greater clarity on the spiritual aspects of her work, especially its forms.
I have purely performance reasons for wanting to do RIVERS at Judson Memorial. The first is my feeling that RIVERS is important, ambitious work which should play in a significant space. A more practical reason is the spatial requirement of the piece itself. RIVERS is designed on the ancient theme of The Crossroads (particularly important in Haitian Voudoun). It needs an upper and lower playing level, so the piece can develop on a visual vertical while, at the same time, having a horizontal line that clearly divides “above” from “below.” The raised altar of Judson’s sanctuary would provide this. In addition, the piece’s deliberately tempestuous soundtrack demands good acoustics. Though not perfect, Judson would work well.
Another reason for my choice of Judson has to do with the content of the piece. Although the work for which I’ve become known is heavily political, throughout all of it there has been an underpinning of religious concern — as in the funeral ritual of Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, or the water symbolism and hymn singing of Rivers, First Draft. Sometimes the religious concern disappears into the purely aesthetic — for instance, the chasuble-like design of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire’s cape. As a child of Jamaican immigrants, I was raised an Anglo-Catholic, or High Episcopalian, and I have been permanently influenced by the church’s attitude toward ritual and form.
The “religious attitude” is an involuntary aspect of my mental landscape. I’ve long since renounced the church, but my life an work are marked by a quest for “wholeness,” a variant, I guess, of the old spiritual search for significance in the cosmos. As a good post-modernist, I undertake the quest for “wholeness” and “meaning” knowing that it’s doomed. But I can’t help harboring a secret hope that I will be able to achieve psychological and artistic unity. The predominant aesthetic of my work is that of collage,, i.e. of disparate realities colliding, of fragmentation and multiple points of view (I teach a course in Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism at SVA), but with me, the collage aesthetic reflects a desire to unify and contain everything. It isn’t intended to be merely descriptive; it is never a capitulation to the fragmentation and division.
The governing aim of my work is the reconciliation of opposites, and my subject matter often deals with this explicitly, as in the reconciliation between past and present in Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline; between the West Indies and New England in Rivers, First Draft; and between aspects of the divided self in The Dual Soul and Indivisible Landscapes. In the work’s form as well, I try to create work that is both abstract and concrete, which is to say, both formally beautiful and capable of delivering specific intellectual and political content. I try to find formal ways to combine an obsession with autobiography and the inner life of dream and myth with my attitude of political intransigence (you might say I am both a Jungian and a Marxist in my fashion). But the work proceeds in this direction only awkwardly: I am aiming for the “perfect balance” between personal and political, abstract and concrete, and whenever the work is too heavily weighted toward one or the other — which it most often is — I feel that I have failed. But I keep trying to juggle all of these elements.
Although I hope to make RIVERS a much less personal and a more political piece than was Rivers, First Draft, at the same time, my main reason for wanting to perform it at Judson Memorial is my even greater desire to have both the personal and political content of the piece interact so strongly with the religious nature of the church’s space that they will produce a result larger than either the personal or the political.
© Lorraine O’Grady 1982
O’Grady’s most autobiographical performance was a “three-ring” simultaneous narrative performed one time only in the Loch section of Central Park on August 18 for “Art Across the Park,” curated by Gilbert Coker and Horace Brockington. This script, redrafted until the day of performance, and a set of photo-documents are the only remains.
STILL IMAGES (SILENT)
1. The Woman in the White Kitchen
On the near bank of the stream, there is a house frame of 2 x 4’s painted enamel white. It is of the front of the house only and has no wall.
On the ground, in front of the frame and extending inside the “house,” is a bed of white pebbles forming a square white garden. It flows from under the kitchen furniture which consists of a white stool and miniature white table.
A brown-skinned woman wearing a white halter dress and white wedgies, with a 40s hair style (pompadour type) and bright red lipstick, sits at the table preparing white food — either grating coconut, or flaking codfish and mixing it with chopped onion and flour.
In front of the house frame is an artificial potted plant: it is a fir-palm (the combination hybrid of a fir and a palm) and seems to be a metaphor for the West Indian transplanted to New England.
In the kitchen, a short-wave radio tuned to a New York station (WLIB) blasts a 5-minute newscast delivered in a West Indian accent. The broadcast has been creatively taped by selecting out the most pompous statements, the most stereotypically eager to appear sophisticated and American, and repeating them.
The image that the Woman-in-White projects with her repetitive grating, flaking, chopping, or sifting actions is that of a perfectionist, not one who is tight and determined, but more relaxed — her perfectionism seems less an inner need to be perfect than a need to appear perfect to the alien world in which she now lives.
Her activity continues uninterrupted throughout the entire performance, from just before the start of the West Indian newscast until after the procession goes down the stream at the end.
2. The Nantucket Memorial
A statuary complex reminiscent of New England granite. One or two men, in nor’easters, slickers and fishermen’s boots, enter the stream at the same time the Woman-in-White sits down at her kitchen table. They wear a rowboat structure suspended from their bodies in such a way as to leave their hands free. On the side facing the audience, the boat is painted with the words “NANTUCKET MEMORIAL.” The whaler(s) stand still as statues in the boat, hands resting on its frame. The whole image, men and boat, is colored granite grey.The stone whaler(s) are positioned at the far end of the stream, standing perfectly still all the while, until the next-to-last scene. They should look and feel (and be ignored) like statues that are part of the park landscape, ultimately blending in....
by Dorothée Dupuis, Triangle France, 2010For a show on experimental writer, radical feminist and punk culture icon Kathy Acker, the curator’s emailed request to O’Grady to exhibit Rivers, First Draft, the first such invitation the piece had received, contained a one-paragraph summary of the 1982 performance and its relevance to Acker.
Judith Wilson, 1991Catalogue essay written for O’Grady’s first gallery solo exhibition, “Lorraine O’Grady,” INTAR Gallery, 420 W 42nd Street, New York City, January 21 – February 22, 1991.
by Nick Mauss, 2009Mauss’s article for Artforum is, with Wilson’s INTAR catalogue essay, one of the most extended and authoritative pieces on O’Grady’s oeuvre to date. It was one-half of a two-article feature that also included O’Grady’s artist portfolio for The Black and White Show.
© 2009 Lorraine O'Grady | All rights reserved.