Featuring Photos of Performers In and Out of Drag, ‘Contrast Contoured’ Exhibition Is a Powerful Document of the Community

"It is important to me to celebrate the community.”

click to enlarge Anhedonia Delight, Drag Queen, poses in and out of drag - Photo by Bridget Caswell
Photo by Bridget Caswell
Anhedonia Delight, Drag Queen, poses in and out of drag

Works from photographer Bridget Caswell capturing local performers in and out of  drag will be exhibited at the Maria Neil Art Project, Space: ROCK gallery, and former music emporium spac in "Contrast Contoured," a collection that takes its title from the drag community, which uses it to express the duality of the performers and the spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identifications.

It opens on August  5 and Caswell has, in addition, a book of the same title that will be released in conjunction with the exhibitions.

“I wanted to have a chronicling of this point in Cleveland LGBTQIA+ history,” said Caswell. “Throughout time, we have been marginalized and erased from history. It is important to me to document and celebrate the community.”

Within the context of this show, it is important to consider how the public perceives drag, which has a long history in Western civilization and particularly in theater.

From Shakespearean plays where only men were allowed to portray female roles to vaudeville, when drag queens began to perform and promote their solo acts, to drag balls in New York in the 70s and the inspiration for the Gay Liberation Front, drag has always fascinated audiences and spawned cultural transformation.

Later injected into television and popular culture, drag has and still is the subject of ridicule — lately from culture warrior Republicans — and misconceptions have abounded.

Caswell posed the question of the biggest misconceptions to some of the performers:

"I believe the biggest misconception about burlesque and drag is that they are a modern art form when in reality they are part of world theater history and their evolutions have been quite large in developing what we know as modern theater history. This is Women’s history, LGBTQ history, PoC/BIPOC history. This is history that encompasses a global industry that continues to be pushed down to just a mere taboo nightlife industry when it holds thousands of years of cultural significance. The economic impact this artform has is large to its local economy that fills restaurants, bars, and theaters, brings tourism to the city and continues to see the city flourish with the power of this industry."  - Bella Sin

“All drag performers are born men and cis women can’t do drag! -Lady Inferno Diamond

“That lip syncing isn’t a talent…I think people on the outside who don’t appreciate it don’t understand all the aspects and layers that are involved in making drag/burlesque happen.” -Dean Heartthrob

“People assume that burlesque is only about taking your clothes off. Burlesque has been and always will be a political act. “-Lola Loveletter

“That drag isn't inherently NSFW. Drag can be 18+ but so can any other art form: dance, comedy, music, theater, visual art. I don't like being perceived as "adult entertainment" just because I'm in drag. It gives me an icky feeling; cause it's feeding into the narrative 'queer culture = inappropriate for youth.'" -Rhett Corvette

“That drag is one thing, does one thing, and is one unified culture/art form and we all basically do the same things for the same reasons. The truth is that drag is as varied as the art forms of painting, theater, dance, etc. with people who do it for a huge multiplicity of reasons and to different ends.” –Dr. Lady J

Caswell aims to go behind the mystique of the drag performer and their performances to unravel the complexity of these people and the public perception of what is drag, and what it means culturally and social politically in addition to being entertainers.

The exhibition tries to dissect and unravel the mysteriousness of it all and to spotlight, or rather look beyond the spotlight, at the character of the people showcasing their talent and the act of the performance itself and to peer into their humanity.

“A lot of humanity is lost in the shadows because we don’t allow ourselves to sparkle and shine and be seen. Drag and Burlesque are the art of shining in all your gloriousness, highlighting your favorite parts of yourself and creating a limitless character that is your best you,” said Caswell. “They get to be the fabulousness they want to see in the world. When the song is over, they exit the stage and go back to being their multifaceted selves. But they bring the fabulous sparkle of possibility with them everywhere they go. I wanted to have a chronicling of this point in Cleveland LGBTQIA+ history. Throughout time, we have been marginalized and erased from history. It is important to me to document and celebrate the community.”

“Contrast Contoured: Portraits of Drag and Burlesque Performers” will open Friday, August 5th and run through Friday, October 7th, with Special Ohio Burlesque Festival hours on Thursday, August 11th; Friday August 12th; and Saturday, August 13th from 5 to 7 p.m. at MNAP, with additional hours by appointment.
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