O’Grady’s first performance, Rivers, First Draft, or The Woman in Red, was presented in New York’s Central Park on August 18, 1982, in front of a small audience of friends and the occasional passerby. Interweaving three narratives, the performance is an animated and dreamlike exploration of O’Grady’s life, including her upbringing in Boston’s Caribbean diaspora, her emergent feminism, her creative coming-of-age, and her traumatic encounters with art world politics. Key to the performance is the metaphor of the Crossroads, as it is understood in African diasporic religions such as Haitian Vodun.

The performance’s multiple storylines speak of the artist’s path from childhood to adulthood and artistic independence. The narrative follows the Woman in Red (O’Grady as an adult) as she navigates the New York art world of the 1970s, where her gender and her Blackness exclude her from both Black and White artists’ circles. Art Snobs, Black Male Artists, and the Debauchees act as choirs framing her fraught social encounters, which include a symbolic assault. The artist’s moment of self-actualization occurs when she spray paints a white stove red, signaling her feminist political transformation and her release from her mother’s oppressive cultural dictates. The story culminates as O’Grady’s childhood, adolescent, and adult selves unite to walk down the stream together.

© Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Visitors to the gallery can view a hand-written playlist that O’Grady created for this performance. Thanks to the Weatherspoon’s student group, CoWAM, this selection of songs has been assembled on Spotify with the artist’s permission. Click below to listen.