A vivid history of LGBTQ+ counterculture in 1980s New York

A vivid history of LGBTQ+ counterculture in 1980s New York
With the exhibition ‘Drag Show’, curator Paul Baker Prindle revisits this fabled chapter of LGBTQ+ history, celebrating the iconoclasts, radicals, and renegades who forged their own path during the height of the AIDS crisis.

In 1979, the Pyramid Club opened its doors to New York’s downtown avant-garde, ushering in a new era of art and activism that would come to define the East Village scene. Here a coterie of underground artists and performers like Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Tabboo!, and Sister Dimension reimagined drag as we know it today. It was a pantheon of larger-than-life personas that eschewed stale tropes of “female impersonation” to create new expressions of gender, style, identity — and any permutation therein.

With the exhibition Drag Show, curator Paul Baker Prindle revisits this fabled chapter of LGBTQ history, celebrating the iconoclasts, radicals, and renegades who forged their own path during the height of the AIDS crisis. The show brings together works by photographers including Nan Goldin and David Yarritu, as well as work by drag legend Linda Simpson, the mastermind behind the underground zine, My Comrade.

Top to bottom: Dotted Bunny, David Yarritu Lypsinka with Oscar, David Yarritu

“The exhibition explores how they came together in the face of exceptional trials by foregrounding their difference as a source of power,” says Prindle, who organized Drag Show as a response to the ongoing attack on LGBTQ rights across the United States today. Drawing inspiration ‘80s activists, Prindle shares insights from Tabboo!, who remembers the harrowing realities of AIDS at a time when the government, media, public health, and religious institutions left them for dead.

“A few times a week, someone you knew was dead, and you couldn’t even have a memorial because there was so much shame. It decimated a whole generation,” Tabboo! told Prindle. “Being gay was still illegal. It was considered a mental disease. The idea of doing something like Wigstock outside in the middle of the day was so fucking revolutionary…. To be outside and not be killed was wild.”

Drag Show pays homage to the innovators whose courage, creativity and community-building vision in the face of state-sanctioned violence transformed the landscape of politics and pop culture alike. “Gays have had long had an impact on the production of culture, but this moment is one where it was undeniable; the impact couldn’t be fully hidden behind coded images or words,” Prindle says.

Top to bottom: Billy, David Yarritu Egyptians (Billy & Will), David Yarritu Mona Foot as Wonder Woman, David Yarritu Zaldy & Mthu, David Yarritu

Photography played an integral role in making visible all that had been misrepresented or wholly erased, centring the stories and struggles of those marginalised by systemic oppression and opening new spaces for acts of joy and resistance.

“Photography places your world into the historical archive while also affirming one’s sense of self-worth, identity, connection with others,” says Prindle. He points to the rise of instamatic cameras during this time as a vital tool to advance the culture and the cause.

“Polaroid film was an incredible tool for creating colour images that didn’t require you to open yourself up to censorship or reliance on a homophobic printer,” he says. “You could make an image of anything—especially things that were not for everyone’s eyes. To control the means of production around queer images is extremely empowering.”

Top to bottom: Dudes, David Yarritu Page, David Yarritu

Drag Show was on view through December 15, 2023, at Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum of California State University, Long Beach in California.

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