‘It’s like entering the green room of the biggest cabaret on earth…’ is how curator Vincent Honoré begins describing the Hayward Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘Drag: Self-portraits and Body Politics’. Opening on Wednesday 22, during a month when the art world is usually more interested in sipping piña coladas on a beach than staging new shows, ‘Drag’ is a celebration of the relationship between art and drag from the 1960s until now.
The works on display capture drag kings, drag queens and bio queens (usually female performance artists who adopt the style of male drag queens) in every mode, from just-off-stage exuberance to intimate, low-key portraits. The linking factor, for Honoré, is how drag allows a person to ‘constantly transform’.
Drag has been used by artists to critique class, consumerism, race, colonialism, and the Aids crisis of the 1980s. Featured works in the show include ‘After Chinatown’ by Ming Wong. The project investigates the idea of Chinatown in 40s cinema and what it symbolised for white filmmakers.
But along with the political dimension, the images on display have been chosen for their artistic qualities. From the sugar-sweet but striking image of a drag queen looking like the perfect ice goddess, captured by Victoria Sin, to the strong monochrome self-portrait by Samuel Fosso, they’re here because they’re art.
Honoré mentions the rise in the mainstream popularity of drag thanks to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and he’s not wrong. But the show aims to be as much about the history of drag and art as it is about recent exposure. Some of the earlier images come from Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer whose works still have the ability to surprise no matter how familiar you are with them.
The same can be said for drag itself; you’ll potentially see a side to it at this show you haven’t before. Because, as Honoré says, these are ‘pictures of some of the greatest performers… looking straight at you’
Drag: Self-portraits and Body Politics is on from August 22 - October 22 at the Hayward Gallery. Find out more here.