Four Happy Girls in Harlem: How Lorraine O’Grady Showed Art Is For Everyone | Art and design

Rresponding to a comment from a “non-artist acquaintance” that “avant-garde art has nothing to do with black people” – and to prove that it was – in September 1983, the artist Lorraine O’Grady took her camera to the “biggest black space she could think of” – the African American Day Parade in Harlem, New York, to document the crowds for her series Art Is… Hiring a float covered in gold cloth, with a giant gold frame, O’Grady had 15 actors and dancers, all dressed in white, reach out to excited onlookers and have them pose inside empty gold picture frames.

With his camera, under the shimmering sunlight, O’Grady captured celebratory images of people of all ages and a myriad of personalities, ranging from energetic locals to thoughtful, taking it all in. But it’s the group of young girls in Girlfriends Times Two, grinning from ear to ear with their hands clasped around the golden rims – confidently showing that they belong in those frames – that I find the most joyous.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Sarina Wiegman’s unstoppable England side rock the nation at the Women’s Euro. There was Georgia Stanway’s 95th-minute long-range goal that clinched their semi-final berth, Alessia Russo’s backheel to secure the Lionesses’ place in the final, and last night’s epic lob of ‘Ella Toone giving them the first lead in the final and then Chloe Kelly’s goal securing England the triumphant and deserved victory. It was all documented by the team’s official photographer, Lynne Cameron, who captured the euphoria of their success, from the day after Fran Kirby’s momentous goal to Rachel Daly storming the pitch in celebration.

Troupe of Lorraine O’Grady with Mile Bourgeoise Noire), taken during the African American Day parade in Harlem in 1983. Photography: Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York/2022 Lorraine O’Grady / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Just as the Lionesses shattered all preconceptions that football belongs to the world of men – as shockingly revealed in an anonymous note tweeted by Woman’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett – O’Grady also broke with traditional ideas about what art is and where it should be situated. Rightly ignoring society’s rigid views of a gender-unbalanced art world and bringing art down to its simplest and most effective terms, Art Is… showed that anyone could to be worthy of belonging “inside the frame” – of being a subject of “art”. It’s up to us, the viewers, the participants – or in the case of the England team, the fans – to rewrite the rules and be inclusive of everyone.

This month, the Lionesses achieved that, not only through their incredible success on the pitch, but also through the impact on those who watch them play. As many as 9.3 million people watched England beat Sweden; records were broken as Sunday’s game became the most attended of a UEFA tournament
in men’s or women’s football; TV viewing figures are up 58% on previous Women’s Euros. Former England men’s star Ian Wright proclaimed after the team reached the final: “If after this girls aren’t allowed to play football like boys in school, then what is ‘we do ?”

Art is… took art out of the museum and into the public domain. It broadened the fabric of photography and performance and showed “non-artist knowledge” – and perhaps the establishment from which it came – the relevance of art and its power to foster inclusivity. She showed that art can be a performance, a question, a call to action, in a museum or in the street. For O’Grady, the art is “a joyful performance in Harlem’s African-American Day Parade.”

Much like O’Grady telling beaming young girls they too should be included on museum walls, the Lionesses are cheering on the next generation of footballers. This is powerfully underscored by striker Nikita Parris, who wrote, “So I know how young women, young black women feel growing up in today’s world because there’s not a lot of representation at the highest level, where they see a path or they feel a sense of “I can make this dream come true”.

In the same way that Art Is… was revolutionary in the field of art, the Lionesses, not only by making history by lifting their trophy last night, changed minds and hearts. Now everyone can feel worthy to be part of the game.

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