Mexico City

Charles Atlas, Butchers’ Vogue, 1990, video, color, sound, 4 minutes 50 seconds. From “Elements of Vogue.”

Charles Atlas, Butchers’ Vogue, 1990, video, color, sound, 4 minutes 50 seconds. From “Elements of Vogue.”

“Elements of Vogue”

Elements of Vogue. Un caso de estudio de performance radical” (Elements of Vogue: A Case Study in Radical Performance) welcomes the visitor with a showcase of the dancer D’relle West twirling euphorically in the streets of London during a solidarity protest that erupted shortly after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. Just two more videos of voguing appear in the exhibition, in a section at the end that brings together works of contemporary art whose themes overlap with key concerns of voguing and ballroom culture: pop music, queerness, fashion, and cultural appropriation. One is a fragment of David Bronstein, Dorothy Low, and Jack Walworth’s short documentary Voguing: The Message, 1989. It shows the liveliest, most lissome black and Latinx kids dancing Old Way—the style an embryonic form of voguing—in front of Manhattan’s West Side piers, an emblematic place for ballroom culture. The other is Charles Atlas’s Butchers’ Vogue, 1990, a hilarious takedown of Madonna, who in 1990 poached only the lighter-skinned dancers from the New York scene to frame herself as the star of her hit single praising (and titled after) the new dance style she had nothing to do with. Shot in New York’s then-grimy Meatpacking District, Atlas’s video stars Connie Fleming and Gina Vetro as sex workers who seduce a john only to punch and rob him at the very end, as Madonna’s well-known refrain “Vogue, vogue, vogue” fades into silence.

While the show, curated by Sabel Gavaldón and Manuel Segade, may be short on dancing, its generous public program includes an urban dance gathering, a voguing workshop, Benji Hart’s Dancer as Insurgent, 2017 (a performance that couples poetry and dance moves), and an Old Way master class with the ball legend Jack Mizrahi. And although the exhibition only occasionally mentions the names of New York ballroom culture’s fabled houses—House of LaBeija, House of Ninja, House of Xtravaganza, to name a few—it shows the context in which they struggle for equality and recognition. The first gallery is packed with essential mementos of the African American struggle for equality, including Emory Douglas’s beautiful collages created for the Black Panther Party’s newspaper in 1971, photographs of the Black Panther salute given by the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the summer Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City and of the mobilizations for justice after Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, and a video of the philosopher Cornel West’s poignant address at Princeton University in 2006. Also here are artworks by major artists, among them David Hammons and Pope.L, dealing with black subjectivity.

The second part of the show homes in more specifically on LGBTQ struggles. It opens with a banger: Marlon T. Riggs’s 1991 music video Anthem, juxtaposing scenes of Riggs dancing while wearing an act up T-shirt with images of the Pan-African and US flags, as well as a delicious overlay of a golden crucifix and a red rose flashing over fingers penetrating a jar of Vaseline. The words “In america, / I place my ring on your cock / where it belongs” sound in the background, spoken by their author, the poet Essex Hemphill. This section of the exhibition is dedicated to Joan Jett Blakk, a charismatic drag queen who ran for president in 1992 on the Queer Nation Party ticket, with the irresistible slogan “Lick Bush in ’92!” My favorite among the cast of characters presented here, however, is Sylvia Rivera, the legendary LGBTQ activist who in 1970 cofounded, with Marsha P. Johnson, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an organization offering support to homeless queer youth and sex workers. In a video from 1973, Rivera rails against the silence of white gays in the face of violence and against injustice to trans women, shouting into a microphone in front of an alternately jeering and cheering crowd in New York’s Washington Square Park. Decades later, interviewed about Pride celebrations in 2002, she is incredulous at the fact that she has “to sit there thirty-two years later, and basically denounce that the gays have become so capitalist.” Such moments remind us that, for all its fun, glamour, and beauty, vogue’s roots are irrevocably entwined with radical resistance.