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“Visions of Pride: Paris Is Still Burning” explores ballroom culture and its history — and evolution — among L.G.B.T.Q. people.
July 8, 2021, 4:53 p.m. ET
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Like many young, queer people of color before him, Yohon Tatum found a community in New York City’s ballroom scene, an L.G.B.T.Q. subculture in which people walk down a runway and perform in front of judges at events known as balls. As the pandemic took hold in the city, and in-person interactions were paused, Mr. Tatum began wondering how the community could interact without physically being in ballrooms.
Featuring photographs by Anja Matthes, Damien Armstrong and William Isaac Lockhart, the series explores the multifaceted ballroom culture, with images of dancing, performing, protesting, affection between members, and ordinary, everyday scenes. The exhibition also includes videos and examines the history — and evolution — of the ballroom scene, including its “houses,” where chosen families of friends live together in the same residence.
“I figured through these three photographers, not only can I highlight their art, I can also highlight people involved in their creativity through the photos,” said Mr. Tatum, the community engagement coordinator at The Center, a nonprofit organization serving the L.G.B.T.Q. population. “Viewers can also actually see community because we’re like a community. Houses are like family. It’s almost like we’re blood.”
Houses have always been an essential part of the ballroom scene, as the people who participate in balls are primarily Black and Latino L.G.B.T.Q. individuals who have been rejected or kicked out of their biological families’ homes. Houses are led by “mothers” and “fathers” of the ballroom scene who offer guidance and support for their house “children.”
Ballrooms date to the early 1880s, when a formerly enslaved person named William Dorsey Swann organized a series of balls in Washington, D.C., that were initially created as spaces for drag queens. The secret events hosted by Mr. Swann, who was known as the Queen of Drag, were by invitation only and were often raided by the police.
By the 1920s, drag competitions were being held across New York City, though a majority of the performers were white men. Some of the Black drag queens felt discriminated against, and so Crystal LaBeija, a Black drag queen, and several friends of color created their own ball, the “House of LaBeija.” And thus began the current ballroom scene in New York.
Last February, weeks before the coronavirus gripped New York City, The Center threw a mini-ball that offered prizes to those who were tested for H.I.V. But once The Center was forced to close last March, its leaders began thinking about how to creatively meet the community’s needs.
Richard Morales, who manages community partnerships at The Center, said he and Mr. Tatum had the idea to host something in-person, but also outdoors. He added that the High Line and the nearby Christopher Street piers “really sit on this bedrock of queer history.”
It felt like an obvious spot, and the High Line and The Center have a long history of being partners on a range of public performances and exhibitions. This felt like a great opportunity to spotlight diverse communities in the city, said Mauricio Garcia, chief program and engagement officer of the High Line.
“For some New Yorkers who visit our space or some out-of-towners visiting our space, this might be the first time they interact with these amazing communities that we have in our backyard,” he said. “And it’s also a reminder for folks who are in these communities, just how important they are. And to really give them the platform that they should have more often.”
As a member of a house and the ballroom culture, Mr. Lockhart, one of the featured photographers, agreed.
“I come across a lot of people who do not see themselves as models or who do not see themselves as being beautiful the way that I see them,” said Mr. Lockhart, a member of the Iconic House of Chanel who said he was inspired by Andy Warhol and Tim Burton.
“When people come to the exhibit,” he continued, “what I would like them to see is that an African American artist such as myself with no schooling, no experience and being self-taught can produce photos of this magnitude.”
Gia Love, the Queen Mother of the House of Juicy Couture and a member of the ballroom scene for 15 years, said she appreciated the sheer range of the exhibition — and its focus on much more than the performances and “walks.”
“Ballroom is not only about vogueing, and I think that vogueing is the thing that people can most commodify and objectify about the community,” she said.
The curators of the exhibition said they hope those who visit leave with an understanding — and appreciation — for ballroom culture and its L.G.B.T.Q. history.
“What I want people to see through this exhibit is community, family, love and the passion that these people have for what they do,” Mr. Tatum said. “People in the audience having passion for the people performing on the ballroom floor. All of that support is the reason why people come to ballroom.”