For my History of Modern Art class, I was recently tasked with creating my own exhibition using artwork from the Tate collection. For reference, Tate holds the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day in addition to international modern and contemporary art from around the world. With thousands of artwork to choose from, it was a hard task at first to hone in on a unique topic for the exhibition. However, while reading the paper on the London Tube, I stumbled upon a story describing right-wing protesters and counter-demonstrators going head-to-head over a Drag Queen story time held at the Tate Britain in February. Similarly, Tennessee has recently become the first American state to ban drag shows in public spaces. With so much hate being directed toward the art of drag right now, I thought it was pretty pertinent to educate my classmates and readers about drag through art.
Surprising to some, drag is not just performed by Drag Queens. Specifically, the art form of Drag includes the overall concept of performing exaggerated masculine, feminine, and gender expressions for entertainment purposes. The mission of this exhibition I created is to showcase how the concept of drag is embodied by thousands of humans across the world and throughout time. At the end of the day, everyone does some form of drag when they walk out that door in the morning, and that’s just fine with me. This led me to title my exhibition Drag: Everyone Does It. Below are the pieces I included in my exhibition:
A Couple Dressed in the Height of Fashion 1744
Graphite and gouache on paper
This Joseph Highmore piece is the oldest artwork in the exhibition. As implied by the title A Couple Dressed in the Height of Fashion, the 18th-century wealthy elite loved playing with proportions and design. For men, this was often seen in the powdered wigs that exude masculinity at the time. Likewise, women loved wearing mantua dresses that extremely exaggerated their hips. This piece’s garments show how people have historically played with gender for centuries and that gender performances can be performed on stage by entertainers or at parties by guests.
The Three Dancers 1925
Oil paint on canvas
The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso also played with drag performers in his artwork. The Three Dancers depicts a trio of ballet dancers in a cubist arrangement. While the ballet may brand itself as a well-respected prim and proper establishment, ballet dancers often play with gender expression nonetheless. Often displayed through the different attire for females and males, costumes or the lack thereof as seen in this painting are curated for specific performances. Just like drag queens, ballet dancers of all genders play with the styling of their hair, makeup, and clothes for entertainment purposes. While it may seem extreme for a man to wear a lace front wig, the same could be said of a woman wearing little to no closes at all for a performance, but one still elicits more of a reaction than the other.
Liz Johnson Artur 1964
Artists’ workbooks with photographs
Liz Johnson Artur is a Ghanaian-Russian photographer based in London. Her work primarily documents the lives of black people from across the African Diaspora. This photograph shows an African woman playing with the art form of drag. While the woman looks pretty normal in the image on the left, the big blonde wig and large breastplate on the right are allowing the subject of these photos to play with gender expression, which is the essence of drag at the end of the day. And in this case, female gender expression is what is being played with.
Liz Johnson Artur
Photographic transfer prints on felt, cotton thread, cork
In this set of Liz Johnson Artur photographs, the subject is playing with masculine expression. While drag queens are the most typical image that comes to mind when one thinks about drag, exaggerated gender expression for entertainment purposes is at the crux of the drag art form. These images show a bodybuilder embodying a hyper-masculine physique while competing in a competition. These images and many of those that follow show the often unnoticed prevalence of drag in much of our lives today.
Diane Benson 1980
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
In this piece, Robert Mapplethrope poses his model in a large 1950s-style quiff. Shocking to some, a woman is underneath that hair and makeup. While the hair and jacket may have been worn by some male-rock icons at the time, this picture highlights the art of “Drag Kings”. That’s right, women also dress up in costumes to embody personas. Some important drag kings in history include Lillyn Brown and Stormé DeLarverie.
Tseng Kwong Chi
London, England (Tower Bridge) 1983
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Kwong Chi’s London, England photograph embodies the art form of impersonation often found in drag performances. In this piece, Kwong Chi intentionally chooses his clothing and body positioning to replicate that of a Chinese government official or dignitary. Blurring the line between reality and fiction, impersonation is at the heart of acting, and drag performers are stars at honing this craft, Specifically, famous drag queens such as Derrick Berry and Chad Michaels have given amazing performances as Britney Spears and Cher on television screens all across the globe.
Life of Imitation 2009
Video, 2 projections, colour and sound (stereo)
Ming Wong’s Life of Imitation film and accompanying posters showcase the versatility of the drag art form. While bars and clubs are typical venues for drag performances, the screen is another stage for drag performances. In this piece, drag performers remake the classic Hollywood melodrama Imitation of Life (1959) where a black mother meets her mixed-race daughter who has been running away from her true ‘identity’.This version features 3 male actors from the 3 main ethnic groups in Singapore (Chinese, Malay, and Indian) taking turns to play the black mother and her ‘white’ daughter. The identity of the actor for each role constantly changes with each shot. In doing so, Wong highlights the acting capabilities of talented drag performers, much like Shakespeare did in the 16th and 17th centuries.