In 1990, the release of Madonna’s hit single “Vogue” and Jennie Livingston’s acclaimed documentary Paris is Burning catapulted the dance form of voguing into the mainstream. But before popular culture turned its eye on voguers and drag balls, it was a one-way fixation. Balls took shape within the black and latino LGBT communities in 1960s Harlem, offering a stage for the marginalized to respond to the fashion and celebrity of mainstream white culture. Participants performed various coded gender and social roles, from Las Vegas showgirls to fashion models to businessmen, and vied for status and respect in their self-created world through dancing and make-believe.
Exchange is now customary between the contemporary ballroom scene and the fashion and music worlds (Rihanna and FKA twigs were among the attendees at a recent Mugler Ball), but New York–based artist Rashaad Newsome was the first to spark a significant conversation between ballroom culture and the visual arts. Newsome lighted on the ballroom scene in his native New Orleans more than a decade ago. At the Whitney Biennial in 2010, he introduced white-cube audiences to famed voguers with an abstract study of the modern dance form and its ever-evolving stylistic variations. Newsome’s current solo show at the Art Gallery of York University, his first in Canada, showcases a selective sampling of recent work in which the artist continues to forge current and celebratory representations of black and queer cultures.
At AGYU, opulence reigns from the start. The exhibition title curlicues in gold across a rich purple wall: “Silence Please, the Show is About to Begin.” A handful of recent collages line the walls. They are unapologetically flashy emblems of status and desire: bejeweled hands and Louboutin-tipped legs sprout from bouquets of jewels, chains, rims and glossed lips, fanning outward alongside wisps of flailing hair and flying liquids. The excess extends to the customized frames, which are ornamented with faux chains, fur, glitter and leather. Keeping with Newsome’s past collage work, these images imbricate contemporary hip-hop and ballroom cultures with heraldry, a European practice from the Middle Ages. The compositions pick up on the common threads of desire within the protocols of heraldic ranking, hip hop’s fixation with class and the ballroom scene’s echelons of stars, legends and icons. In the flash and bling, Newsome embeds a playful study of the expression of status and cultivated identity.
The collages are an exemplary case of the neo-Baroque in contemporary art. Forms open and expand outwards, reaching out invitingly, while textures, light and colours seduce; the images are made with the audience in mind—to confront, stir and impress with their sensorial force. The exhibition itself is a 21st-century iteration of the Baroque multimedia sensory program. Sound is particularly central to Newsome’s practice. At AGYU, the gallery space is suffused with a chattering of voices, which comes from a video of one of Newsome’s Shade Compositions performances. In this iteration at SFMOMA in 2012, Newsome selected black female artists and drag performers from the local area to form his vocal philharmonic. The performers utter coordinated intonations that express attitude and disdain, while Newsome samples and overlays these voices in real time to produce a collage of sounds. The performance piece takes from the notion of “throwing shade,” which originated from the Harlem ballroom scene to refer to implied insult. In Paris is Burning, drag queen Dorian Corey put her finger on it with droll concision: “Shade is, ‘I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly.’”
On top of the mashup of sounds, the performers’ facial expressions, hand gestures and bodily comportment amplify the theatrics. The performance deploys the vernacular of black queer culture in a formalist mode, offering an anthropological documentation and dissection of nuanced codes of communication. Newsome is particularly interested in the transmission of these gestures, from their origins to their subsequent uptake and adaptation by particular communities. The vernacular forms of “throwing shade” entail an exaggerated performance of femininity, which is recognized now as the stereotypical language of gay men, though Newsome traces their origin to black American women. Surprisingly, during his research for the Shade Compositions project, Newsome also encountered these gestures in Europe and Africa in communities with no American lineage. These Shade performances thus serve as a lively collection of snapshots reflecting on the transmission of subcultural vernacular across race, gender and geography.
Music is again central in the show’s two other videos, KNOT and ICON. At 3’45”, KNOT has all the elements of a punchy music video. Vogue dancers duckwalk and twerk across gilded cathedral vaults and in fields of Kool-Aid coloured flowers—all to a frenzy of dance-inducing beats. The soundtrack, Newsome’s own composition, nods to ballroom-culture music, fusing sounds drawn from house, hip hop, R&B and disco. Living up to his reputation as a cultural connector, Newsome collaborated on the track with contemporary ballroom producers, including veteran MC Kevin JZ Prodigy and newcomer MC Cakes Da Killa. ICON also features a standout soundtrack, which mashes Hildegard von Bingen’s medieval chorus music with house and trap. Voguers wrap themselves around gleaming architectural elements floating in an otherworldly black void. Awarded its own room at the culmination of the exhibition, the video is deservedly haunting and sublime.
Newsome’s works are, in the main, empowering documentations and representations of black and queer cultures, even while they subtlety navigate au courant critical topics like appropriation and identity. His celebratory stance is refreshing amid contemporary art’s acetic obsession with critique, a term often applied so liberally as to castrate it of any force. The concise selection of works in Newsome’s Canadian debut succeeds in capturing this ethos. The show attests that good art can offer valuable insights through—not despite—its delight in the sensual and spectacular.