Twenty-four years ago, Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking documentary, Paris is Burning explored New York City’s drag culture and the associated issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class in America. The film created an understanding of this subculture in America that moved beyond the showmanship of “walking” in the drag balls at underground clubs and portrayed the outward lives led by the queens. Livingston portrayed the liminality of identity between the gender one is born with, the gender one chooses to perform, and the gender one chooses to live their life as. The performers in Livingston’s film shift between the identities they wish to leave behind, those that are forced upon them in American culture, and the personas they innovate. This text will examine what it means for an artist to represent this dynamic in the work of Aubrey Longley-Cook and Sonja Rieger, and how this liminal space of identity is translated in the process of documentation.
Southeastern-based artists Aubrey Longley-Cook and Sonja Rieger have been working concurrently on the documentation of drag culture in their respective cities of Atlanta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. While neither Longley-Cook nor Rieger perform drag, both artists have developed personal relationships with their subjects that allow them to engage on a level that transcends that of a spectator. Although Longley-Cook and Rieger do not appear in their own images, they occupy the roles of both introverted observer and extroverted presenter. The documentation of the queens is a means to bear witness to the historical importance of the drag community.
Judith Butler described that performativity of gender “constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization.”[i] A recent article in the online publication Temporary Art Review featured a discussion amongst members of Atlanta’s Village Queens, a drag performance collective, about their practice and audience. During the conversation one poet-cum-drag performer Jared Dawson, also known by his feminine persona Lavonia Elberton, described his entry into drag as a vehicle for performance, a site to become a creator.[ii] Dawson uses drag as a means to assert a distinct self to articulate his writing. This divided persona affords Dawson both personal and public selves, identities to represent both the introverted and extroverted self.
Atlanta-based Longley-Cook follows the transformation of Dawson into Lavonia Elberton in his embroidered animation, Lavonia Elberton (2012) that consists of nine still frames that comprise a short animation of Elberton shaking her head. The gestures are articulated in individual cross-stitches on a royal purple fabric and framed inside of 7” diameter round, wooden frames. The palette is minimal but vibrant. The deep purple background contrasts Lavonia’s blond wig and coordinating moustache, bright purple and pink eye shadow, red lips, bright green eyes, and large gold hoop earrings. The portrait appears flattened and takes on a graphic quality not unlike a Warholian Marilyn Monroe. Longley-Cook retains Elberton’s moustache and lack of contours (makeup used by queens to create the illusion of a more feminine facial structure) to signify the moment in Dawson’s transformation where he is no longer his male persona, but has not fully become the feminine Elberton.[iii] Longley-Cook stated in an interview that his decision to include Elberton’s moustache was to ensure that the viewer understood that the piece was a drag queen and not a woman.[iv] Longley-Cook emphasizes the moment in this transitional process to stress the liminal space that Elberton occupies; between male gender and female persona. Dawson described in the Temporary Art Review conversation that he has become less interested in creating the illusion of realness rather than exploring the idea of his two personae in conversation with one another. Longley-Cook’s representation of Elberton epitomizes the play of these identities.
Longley-Cook’s handiwork in these cross-stitched images forces the viewer to consider the construction of both the image and the gender identity of the queens. Much like the months of tedious labor that goes into the creation of the stitched frames, the queens spend hours transforming into their feminine identities. Foucault described the body as a surface that is a scene of cultural inscription.[v] In these multiple views of Elberton, Longley-Cook literally inscribes Elberton’s portrait through an embroidering process. The cultural inscriptions that Longley-Cook portrays are rendered as gendered symbols like the make-up, hairstyle, and jewelry that Dawson emulates in his construction of Elberton. Not only is gender produced in Dawson’s transformation, but also Longley-Cook’s subsequent representation of Elberton. Longley-Cook furthers the idea of the fabrication of Elberton’s feminine identity in the presentation of the work. The final animation shows both the front and the backs of the pieces. Longley-Cook describes that this exposure of the knots and threads on the backs of the frame creates a symbolic representation of “what goes on behind the scenes at drag shows.”[vi] The clean front of the frame illustrates the feminized face presented to the public, while the back reflects the hidden male identity of the queen.
During the Temporary Art Review discussion, the Village Queens noted that in the Atlanta drag community performance has moved away from the traditional pageant structure and into dance, art, politics, writing, and performance platforms. Drag is a means for them to have a more public persona through whom they can exhibit their practice. In considering this new generation of drag performers, the definition of what it means to be a drag queen might be reimagined. This new generation of drag encompasses a broader notion of appropriation of gender. Longley-Cook described that he felt embroidery was his own form of drag. He writes,
I feel like I do relate to them in many ways and understand that idea of other. I’m able to have that connection, and I understand the obstacles that they have to overcome, and feedback that they might have for their performances. Artists are very similar. In the same way that a drag queen puts on a performance for the public, as an artist I prepare the work beforehand, and I have a little more time to edit, fine tune, and perfect, which is very much the nature of how I work, but it’s a similar type of creating work, and it’s a similar type of putting not only my aesthetics and my handwork out there, but also putting my identity out there and really being quite open with my identity.[vii]
In the same way that the queens impart their masculine identity with the feminine to construct their drag persona, Longley-Cook appropriates a traditionally female craft to use in his own artistic practice. He becomes both voyeur and performer as he simultaneously observes his subject and constructs his own feminine identity in the documentation of that subject.
Following the Lavonia Elberton work, Longley-Cook began a project that engaged a group of 35 stitchers in a four-week RuPaul Cross-Stitch Animation Workshop. Longley-Cook sent out a public call through WonderRoot (a grassroots art organization and the location that hosted the workshops) to invite community members to participate in the creation of 35 individual frames that form an animation of RuPaul from her music video, Supermodel. The animation captures a close-up of RuPaul shaking his head and saying “work.” Each participant was assigned a frame and a set of threads to indicate a suggested color scheme. During each workshop, queens would perform for the workshop participants.
This project is an important shift in Longley-Cook’s practice from the personal, solitary work of creating Lavonia Elberton in a studio to the animated representation of a public persona in a communal forum. This wider platform has facilitated his need to provide better documentation of the Atlanta drag community. This workshop created a new space for awareness, interaction and collaboration. This engagement with the drag community Longley-Cook says, becomes a “solidarity generating group experience” that creates a safe space for both the queens and the stitchers.[viii] Each participant becomes part of the narrative of documentation and empowerment for the drag community. They transcend passive spectatorship of a stigmatized community and begin to play an active role in creating a safe space for the queens.
Birmingham-based Rieger documents the performers in an African American drag show titled the Platinum International Newcomers Pageant in her series, Dazzling (2009). Like Longley-Cook’s animated portrait, Rieger’s series focuses on the transformation of the queens into their performance personas for their balls. Dazzling began after Daroneshia, an attendant at Rieger’s parents’ nursing home and a transgender drag queen herself, asked that Rieger photograph her pageant from the dressing room. The pageants are held in buildings around Fairfield, Alabama that are rented for single evening events and turned into a drag club. Rieger creates photographic portraits of the drag performers in their improvised dressing rooms prior to their performances. Rieger’s mediates her imagery to emphasize the “sophistication and glamour of the participants.” She uses a black backdrop to eliminate the often gritty and cramped reality of the pageants location and prints the photographs close to life size to give grandeur to the queens. Rieger seems to suggest that in this space – both the pageants and the portraits – the queens have fully achieved their desired transformations.
Like Longley-Cook’s image of Elberton at a moment in between identities, Rieger’s images capture the queens in a liminal space; the dressing room is where they perform their gender transformation. Rieger writes that this alteration involves the queens’ shift into an entirely new character: “I saw boys and men turn into bigger than life stage personalities from the inside out.” It is in this transitional space that these men are able to move beyond “the vulnerability of… wrestling with their sexual identities… to show their dazzling personas.”[ix] Rieger helps to mediate the womanlike-ness of the queens through her lens. She uses poses and framing devices to best capture each subject in the most feminine light.[x] Rieger becomes an integral part of the queens’ transition to their feminine persona through this documentation.
Susan Sontag describes in her book, “On Photography” that photography is an act of non-intervention, but that the action of using a camera still constituted a participatory act. The artists’ manipulation of an images prevents the portraits from existing as strictly documentary materials. As discussed, Rieger mediates the background of her portraits to eliminate the improvised dressing rooms and Longley-Cook flattens the portrait of Elberton to show only highlighted elements of her face. These images are not seeking to document life in the way that Mike Brodie, Larry Clark, or Nan Goldin have of their subcultural groups. Longley-Cook and Rieger mediate the portraits of the individual members of their drag communities as a means to celebritize them. Because they feature distinct subjects, the artists are also able to humanize drag culture at large by giving specific names and faces to the queens. In Paris is Burning, one of the older queens, Dorian Carey describes that the desire for stardom is “an expression of the longing to realize the drama of autonomous stellar individualism.”[xi] Similarly, Longley-Cook and Rieger’s portraits serve to further this desire for significance. As opposed to operating as a passive spectator, they play a catalytic role of the construction of the queens’ identity.
Longley-Cook’s relationship to his subjects does vary from Rieger’s. Longley-Cook was already an established part of the Atlanta LGBT community when he began documenting the queens. He is a gay male and, while he does not perform drag, is Dawson’s roommate and assists with many drag performances. Rieger was not involved in her Alabama drag community until she was invited to attend. AtlantaAtlAtlanta also provides a drastically difference setting for drag culture than Fairfield, Alabama. In an essay on the drag culture in Atlanta, Keith McNeal describes that Atlanta is considered the drag capital of the United States.[xii] It is the location where RuPaul—no doubt the most recognizable face of drag in the country—began his career.
There is the need to draw a distinction between the communities the artists represent and their roles within them. Rieger’s role within her Alabama drag community is not dissimilar from that of Jennie Livingston’s relationship to the queens she documented in Paris is Burning. Rieger’s relationships to the participants in the drag community provide her with a connection to her subject, which grants her access to observe and record. For Sontag, the medium of photography is one of the most direct ways to experience something in an actively participatory way. She writes, “having a camera has transformed [a] person into something active.”[xiii] Rieger is a straight white female documenting the African American underground drag culture in Fairfield, Alabama. Fairfield was a formerly “white steel town outside of Birmingham, whose population is now 90.23% African American.”[xiv] In a phone conversation, Rieger described that for the queens who participate in the pageant, drag performance is “their way out.” Many of the queens lack education and predominantly are in a low-income situation. Rieger writes that, “the [pageant] system provides an environment and support system for young men who may not have another place in the rigid society of the south.”[xv]
Feminist theorist bell hooks wrote on Paris is Burning that the director’s approach of the “outsider looking in” assumed the role of the privileged white female who ventured into a “contemporary ‘heart of darkness’ to bring back her knowledge of the natives.’”[xvi] Unlike Livingston’s role as a passive observer in filming Paris is Burning, Rieger’s images are constructed and manipulated. As earlier described, Rieger adjusts the scenes and poses of her subjects as a means to remove less appealing aspects of the pageants settings, presenting the queens as they wish to be seen. Rieger has become an agent in her subjects’ transformation. Documentation gives the queens a voice that they did not previously have outside of the walls of the drag club. Rieger gives the queens a new level of recognition and acceptance that they were not previously granted outside of their immediate queer community by placing their portraits in the white walled arena of the gallery and museum.[xvii] The photographic record gives acknowledgement to the queens as subjects that merit a physical archive.
Paris is Burning set a precedent for the importance of giving a public voice and identity not only to drag culture at large, but the individuals involved in the subculture. Like Livingston, Rieger and Longley-Cook have taken on the role of documenting an underbelly of today’s drag subculture, which has not previously been revealed. Their series have assisted in bringing national awareness to their drag communities more localized platforms.
Martha Rosler described in her essay, “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)” that documentary images have two moments: the first where the image serves as a “testimony” to an event—historical proof that it occurred; the second is ahistorical and uses the aesthetic of the imagery to enhance the imagery and meaning behind the depicted scene.[xviii] Both Rieger and Longley-Cook occupy the dual role of documentarian and participant that Rosler described. Their role as observer identifies their subject, attesting to their presence and creating an important historical record. Longley-Cook and Rieger are innovators of identity in their process of creating their portraits. The potency of their imagery comes not from occupying either of these roles separately, but the transition between the two. It is in this liminal space between gender and representation—explored by both the artists and the queens—that we might reimagine our own role in the process of constructing of these individuals’ personas.
Susannah Darrow is the Executive Director and Co-founder of BURNAWAY, an Atlanta-based nonprofit arts organization dedicated to providing critical coverage and dialogue about arts in Atlanta and the Southeast through an online publication, public programs, and annual print edition. She serves on the Board of Directors of ART PAPERS magazine. She received a BA in Art History from the University of Georgia (2007) and MA in Art History from Georgia State University (2013).
[i] Judith Butler, “Subversive Bodily Acts: Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions,” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2006), 138.
[ii] Maggie Ginestra, “Atlanta’s Art-Drag: 4 artists reflect on their inspirations, audiences, personae and plans,” Temporary Art Review, January 31, 2013, http://temporaryartreview.com/atlantas-art-drag-4-artists-reflect-on-their-inspirations-audiences-personae-and-plans/.
[iii] Contours refer to the makeup techniques used by drag queens to highlight and define the face.
[iv] Aubrey Longley-Cook and Sonja Rieger, “Sister Cities: A Conversation on Documenting Drag in Birmingham and Atlanta,” BURNAWAY, September 27, 2013, http://burnaway.org/sister-cities-a-conversation-on-documenting-drag-in-birmingham-and-atlanta/.
[v] Butler, “Subversive Bodily Acts,” 129.
[vii] Longley-Cook and Rieger, “Sister Cities.”
[viii] McNeal, “Behind the Make-Up,” 357.
[ix] Sonja Rieger, “Dazzling” catalogue essay, Dazzling (Birmingham: 2010), 7.
[x] Lindsey O’Connor, “Resignifying the Spectacle in the Work of Sonja Rieger,” Dazzling (Birmingham: 2010), 72.
[xi] bell hooks, “Is Paris Burning?,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 154.
[xii] Keith E. McNeal, “Behind the Make-Up: Gender Ambivalence and the Double-Blind of Gay Selfhood in Drag Performance,” Ethos 27/3 (September 1999): 349.
[xiii] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), 178
[xiv] Longley-Cook and Rieger, “Sister Cities.”
[xv] Rieger, “Dazzling,” 7.
[xvi] hooks, “Is Paris Burning?,” 151.
[xvii] Katie R. Horowitz, “The Trouble with ‘Queerness’: Drag and the Making of Two Cultures,” Signs 38/2 (Winter 2013): 305-06.
[xviii] Martha Rosler, “In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography),” 3 works, (Halifax: Press of Nova Scotia, 1981), 316.