“Elements of Vogue” at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, Madrid

Gerard H. Gaskin, Serie Legendary, William, Gee Gee and Stephanie Ball.
Philadelphia, Pa., 1998, Courtesy the artist


CA2M (Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo) presents Elements of Vogue. A Case Study in Radical Performance, the first major exhibition in Spain to survey the history of African-American performance, and the first international show on the history of voguing. Curated by Sabel Gavaldón and Manuel Segade, the exhibition looks at the body as a political archive in order to map out the different subjectivities, legacies and minor histories that intersect in the Ballroom subculture that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance in 1930s New York City.

Voguing—a dance form invented by queer people of African or Latino descent—reveals itself as a case study to understand the emergence of the pose as a form of resistance, and its ability to articulate new social forms. The exhibition will be on view from 17 November 2017 to 6 May 2018. Elements of Vogue explores the manifold ways in which minorities use their bodies to produce dissenting forms of beauty, subjectivity and desire. Voguing is an underground dance form inspired by the poses in fashion magazines, though created and performed by those bodies that have been criminalised, racialised, medicalised and disciplined once and again.

This exhibition engages with the political history of the body in order to explore the radical incarnations of style and identity that intersect in the Ballroom scene: a popular culture produced by Black, transgender and queer communities during the golden years of jazz in the 1930s, though it would truly explode from the 1980s onwards, nurtured by the various subcultures that knitted together the underground fabric of New York City immediately prior to the AIDS crisis.

With its complex set of rules, aesthetics and forms of social organisation, Ballroom still is today a platform that articulates the presence of dissident bodies, in what constitutes a case study of radical performance. The exhibition features works by some of the most celebrated African-American artists: from historical figures like David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady, Adrian Piper, Glenn Ligon, Lyle Ashton Harris, Lorna Simpson and Pope L., to younger artists like Arthur Jafa, Ellen Gallagher and Rashaad Newsome. In addition, the show includes key names from the history of Black photography: Ernest Withers, James VanDerZee, and Stephen Shames. Also taking part are seminal activists for the rights of homosexuals and transgender people of colour in the USA, including pioneering and unfairly overlooked figures like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera or Joan Jett Blakk.

Among the works on view in the show are: the ambitious installation Ektachrome Archives by Lyle Ashton Harris, a body of work that spans two decades of activism and political intimacy during the AIDS crisis; a sample from Bruce Talamon’s photographic archive that documents the ephemeral work and early performances of the artist David Hammons in the 1970s; also the work of Joan Jett Blakk, a Black drag performer who contested against Bill Clinton for the nomination as the Democrat candidate for the 1991 elections. The artist Rashaad Newsome has been commissioned to produce a monumental installation specifically conceived for the museum’s lobby. This space will host live performances, concerts and two voguing balls throughout the duration of the show. The exhibition also includes Tongues Untied (available in Spanish for the first time) a major work by filmmaker Marlon T. Riggs, originally produced for US public television in 1989 (where it was censored), and which is now widely recognised as a landmark in the representation of diasporic masculinities.

Elements of Vogue can be inscribed within the lines of research at the core of CA2M’s programme, which explores the intersections between art, music, visual cultures and subcultural phenomena (in previous exhibitions like SONIC YOUTH etc., in 2010; or PUNK: Its traces in contemporary art, in 2015). Music is once again centre stage at CA2M thanks to the exhibition’s soundtrack. The films in the exhibition afford an overview of the different music genres that have channelled the freedom struggles of sexual and racial minorities throughout the past century. From Nina Simone and Roberta Flack to the disco music of Grace Jones and Sylvester; and from the Philadelphia soul of MFSB to the Chicago House of Masters at Work. But also referencing more recent sounds, such as the hip hop of Kanye West, Earl Sweatshirt and Drake, the Deep House of DJ Sprinkles, or even the underground sounds of Baltimore and New Jersey clubs. Furthermore, the exhibition will have its own music thanks to a mixtape commissioned to MikeQ, founder of the Qween Beat label, and arguably the world’s most influential DJ and producer of vogue beats.

Bodies are both agents and products of history. Bodies are history made flesh, as much as they are primary tools for interpreting the past, present and future. History is a choreographic sequence of gestures that make us legible to others. Each gesture is a link in a chain that binds us to gender, race and social class. Gestures solidify into identities. They speak to identities that are naturalised through the systematic repetition of identical gestures. And yet a pose is more than that. Posing implies an acute awareness of how a body makes history. To strike a pose is to pose a threat, as Dick Hebdige wrote in relation to the meaning of style in youth subcultures. That is why we need to trace the history of dissident gestures, and to reconstruct the genealogy of those poses that are bold enough to confront the norm. This modality of performance can be described as radical, as it opens up space to imagine other possible bodies and futures. Radical performance invokes subjectivities for which there is still no name and social choreographies that are yet 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 form whose roots go deep into the history of the Black LGTB community. It takes its inspiration from fashion magazine poses, appropriating the elitist imaginary of haute couture, as well as adopting the vocabulary of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Asian martial arts, and Afrofuturism.

This transgender, multicultural hallucination turns the aesthetics of voguing into an emblem for an alternative, fiercely underground scene. We are referring to the so-called ballroom scene. A community that flourished in 1980s New York as a response to the AIDS crisis, although its history can be traced back to a century of fragile coalitions between minority subjects which dominant culture has again and again consigned to the margins, incarcerated, pathologised and punished throughout the modern period. In the stylised poses of voguing, the dancer’s hands do much more than simply draw figures in the air. These poses transcribe in the flesh a history of resilience and cultural struggles that go all the way back to the 1920s and the first massive drag balls held during the Harlem Renaissance. Today ballroom culture, with its elaborate rules, aesthetics and forms of social organisation, still provides a platform to articulate queer energies and dissident bodies in what constitutes a case study of radical performance.

This exhibition explores ways in which minorities use their bodies to produce dissenting forms of beauty, subjectivity and desire. These minoritarian poetics and politics are perceived as a threat to the normative world, yet at the same time coveted by mainstream culture (one only needs to think of the exploitation of voguing by artists like Madonna). Naturally, it would be impossible to offer a fixed, static portrait of such a complex and changing world as the ballroom scene. Instead, this exhibition delves into a political history of the body in order to map out the debates, conflicts and culture wars that intersect in the birth of voguing, while looking for its echoes and resonances in the history of performance and popular culture in the African diaspora. Under this lens, voguing reveals itself as a case study to understand the emergence of radical performance and its potential to articulate new social imaginaries.


Rashaad Newsome, Shade Compositions (SFMOMA), 2012
Courtesy the artist and De Buck Gallery, New York


Benji Hart, Dancer as Insurgent, 2017
Performed at the opening night of Elements of Vogue
Courtesy the artist


Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being: Let’s Have a Talk, 1975
ARCO Foundation Collection, CA2M, Móstoles


Elements of Vogue. A case study in radical performance
Curated by Sabel Gavaldón and Manuel Segade
16 november 2017–6 may 2018

Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo | Av. Constitución 23, Móstoles, Madrid
Opening times: Tue/Sun 11am–9pm