Four Cheerful Girls in Harlem: How Lauren O’Grady showed that art is for everyone | art and design

sQuoting a comment by “non-artist acquaintances” that “avant-garde art has nothing to do with blacks” – and to prove it – in September 1983 artist Lauren O’Grady took her camera to “the largest black space you could think of” – the African American Day Parade in harlem, New YorkDocumenting the crowds on her series Art Is… By renting a float covered in gold fabric, complete with a giant gilded frame, O’Grady instructed 15 actors and dancers, all dressed in white, to connect with excited onlookers and have them pose within the empty gold picture frames.

Using her camera, and under the twinkling sunlight, O’Grady has captured celebratory portraits of people of all different ages and myriad personalities, from energetic locals to those in a moment of contemplation, absorbing everything. But it’s the group of young girls in Girlfriends Times II, smiling from ear to ear with their hands clenched tightly to the golden edges–confidently showing that they belong in these frames–that I find the happiest.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched the unstoppable Sarina Wigman of England cheer the nation on at the Women’s Euro. There was a long-range goal in the 95th minute for Georgia Stanway, which sealed his place in the semi-finals, heeled Alicia Russo to secure the Lionesses’ place in the final, and last night, Ella Tone delivered the epic ball to give them the initial lead in the match. Final, then Chloe Kelly’s goal which secured England as the victorious and deserved victory. It was all documented by the team’s official photographer, Lynne Cameron, who captured the euphoria of their success, from the aftermath of Fran Kirby’s stupendous goal to Rachel Daley storming the field in celebration.

Lauren O'Grady Ensemble with Mile Bourgeois Noir), captured at the 1983 African American Day Parade in Harlem.
Lauren O’Grady Ensemble with Mile Bourgeois Noir), captured at the 1983 African American Day Parade in Harlem. Photo: Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York / 2022 Lauren O’Grady / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Just as lionesses shatter any preconceptions that football belongs in a man’s world – as shockingly revealed in an anonymous memo chirp By Woman’s Hour Presenter Emma Barnett – O’Grady also broke free of traditional ideas about what art is and where it should be. Truly ignoring society’s rigid views of a gender imbalanced art world, and returning art to its simplest and most effective terminology, Art Is… has shown that anyone can be worthy of belonging ‘within the frame’ – to be the subject of ‘art’. It’s up to us, the spectators, the participants – or in the case of the England team, the fans – to rewrite the rules and be inclusive for everyone.

This month, the Lionesses have achieved it, not only through their incredible success on the field but by influencing those who watch them play. 9.3 million people watched England crush Sweden; Records were broken as Sunday’s match became the most attended UEFA European Football Championship
in men’s or women’s soccer; TV viewing figures are up 58% compared to the previous Women’s Euro. Former England star Ian Wright declared after the team’s promotion to the final: “If then girls are not allowed to play football like boys in school, what are we going to do?”

Art is… bringing art from the museum into the public domain. It expanded the fabric of photography and performance, and demonstrated “non-artistic acquaintance” – and perhaps the institution from which they came – the importance of art and its ability to drive inclusivity. He showed that art can be a show, a question, or a call to action, in a museum or on the street. For O’Grady, art is “a joyful parade in the Harlem Parade of African Americans.”

Just as O’Grady told young girls who should also be included in the museum’s walls, lionesses encourage the next generation of footballers. This was forcefully explained by striker Nikita Parris, who wrote: “So I know how young, young black women feel growing up in today’s world because there isn’t a lot of acting at the highest level, seeing a way or feeling the feeling, ‘I can make this dream come true.'”

In the way that art was… pioneering the art world, the Lionesses, not only making history by raising their glass last night, changed minds and hearts. Now everyone can feel that they deserve to be a part of the game.

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