GAVALDON, Sabel Gavaldon; SEGADE, Manuel (eds.)
Elements of Vogue
Bodies are agents and products of history. Bodies are history made flesh, but they are also primary tools for understanding the past, present and future. History is a choreographed sequence of gestures that makes bodies intelligible to each other. Every gesture is a link in a chain binding us to gender, race and social class. Gestures solidify into identities. They enact identities that become natural through the systematic repetition of identical
gestures. And yet, a pose does more than that. Posing means becoming aware of how a body makes history. “To strike a pose is to pose a threat”, wrote Dick Hebdige referring to the meaning of style in youth subcultures. That’s why it’s important to trace the history of dissident gestures, to trace the genealogy of poses that are bold enough to confront the norm. This modality of performance may be described as radical because it opens up a space for imagining other possible bodies and futures. A radical performance invokes subjectivities for which no name yet exists and social choreographies that are still to come.
This notion of radical performance is what defines voguing, a popular culture that unfolds around transgender pageants and spectacular dance battles between queens of Black and Latino descent. Vogue is a defiantly queer dance style, the roots of which go deep down into the history of the African diaspora. It draws inspiration from the poses in top women’s fashion magazines, re-appropriating the elitist imaginary of haute couture and combining it with the vocabulary of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Asian martial arts and Afrofuturism. Such a transgender, multicultural hallucination is what made vogue emblematic of a fiercely underground scene: namely, the ballroom scene. Ballroom culture flourished in 1980s New York as a response to the AIDS crisis, but its history spans a century of fragile coalitions between minorities that have been consigned to the margins, incarcerated and pathologised throughout the modern period. In the stylised poses of voguing, the dancer’s hands do more than just draw figures in the air. These poses are a bodily transcription of a history of resilience that can be traced back to the 1920s, coinciding with the first massive drag balls of the Harlem Renaissance. With its elaborate rules, aesthetic codes and forms of social organisation, ballroom culture is still a platform to channel queer energies and affirm the lives of nonconforming bodies in what constitutes a case study of radical performance.
This exhibition investigates how minorities produce dissenting forms of beauty, subjectivity and desire. Those minority poetics and politics are viewed as a threat by the normative world, even as dominant culture craves them, as evidenced by the commercial exploitation of vogue by mainstream artists like Madonna. It‘s impossible to present a fixed portrait of a world as complex and protean as the ballroom scene. Instead, this exhibition looks into the political history of the body to retrace some of the key conflicts, struggles and transformations that converged in the emergence of voguing, while seeking its echoes in the histories of queer performance and popular culture in the African diaspora. Under this lens, voguing reveals itself as a case study to understand the meaning of radical performance and its potential to create new worlds. [publisher's note]