featured gallery for November 2019

In the Name of the Father and the Mother

"When nobody speaks your name, or even knows it, you, knowing it, must be the first to speak it." - (Marlon Riggs, "Ruminations of a Snap Queen: What Time Is It?" in OUT/LOOK Magazine 1991)

I am a member of today’s younger generation of the ballroom scene—a community of mainly Black and Latino* LGBTQ people who compete in fashion and performance categories like “voguing” at events called “balls.” I walk balls, I throw balls and I am particularly moved by this community’s unique history. When you walk a ball, often the commentator on the mic will shout that you’re walking “in the name” of someone. That person is often a “legend” or an “icon” of the ballroom scene and most likely a “pioneer” or someone who made a mark in the community and on the runway in one way or another. I often reflect on the legacy I “walk in” and the impact of community members whose lives were lost in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

I am inspired by how the ballroom community created a legacy of activism and a vector for reinserting Black and Brown voices into the fight against HIV and AIDS—through partnerships with health outreach programs, artistic output, and a determination to be seen, be heard and to love itself.

I am deeply moved by the way Black and Latino* artists, both in the ballroom community and outside of it, reinscribed themselves into narratives around HIV and AIDS by documenting their own stories, their own families, and their own communities. The images I chose for this month’s webgallery relate specifically to the theme of visibility: how one sees oneself and how one is perceived by others, especially as Black and Brown people in the world. I use ballroom as a starting point to explore the topic, but my selection of artists extends beyond the ballroom community. Through the varied positionalities and perspectives of these artists, some in the ballroom scene and some outside of it, I encourage the viewer to gaze upon these images with warmth and reverence, and acknowledge a legacy of beauty and defiance, and a fierce testament to self love.

“Gotstabeadrag” GMHC PSA directed by David Bronstein (1990)
“Gotstabeadrag” GMHC PSA directed by David Bronstein (1990)

The video Gotstabeadrag is a time capsule of ballroom culture in the early 1990s. It was filmed as part of a series of PSAs from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) meant to target Black and Latino* LGBTQ communities around safe sex. The intro features Tracy Africa, an icon in the community, and the first transgender woman from the community to have a modelling campaign in the 1970s. The video also includes icons José Xtravaganza and Aldawna Field, both of whom became even larger figures in the 90s. Aldawna danced alongside Willi Ninja in Malcolm McClaren’s 1989 “Deep in Vogue” video, which was one of the early representations of vogue in the mainstream. José, a dancer and a choreographer, taught Madonna how to vogue for her 1990 smash hit of the same name and was instrumental in propelling voguing further into the mainstream. In Gotstabeadrag, José and Aldawna are seen voguing on the Christopher Street Pier, a major cultural site for the community. The pier was a place where the ballroom community would vogue, relax, and for a lot of homeless youth, find a place to live. The Junior Vasquez beat bumps in the background while we admire Patricia Field’s impeccable style.

I spoke with Jean Carlomusto, one of the producers of the video, and she explained to me that this was actually one of the more “tame” PSAs that GMHC had put out at the time. The others were more sexually explicit and showed how to use safe sex protection. All of the GMHC videos were shown at bathhouses, bars, clubs, balls, and anywhere they could get an audience. What impresses me about this piece is not only the artistry of the dance and the aesthetic, but the urgency of the message and the use of voguing as a political tool during a critical time in history.


This past summer, I reached out to Luna Luis Ortiz of the House of Khan, an icon in the ballroom scene, who has done a lot for HIV awareness and activism. Luna told me about coming out as seropositive and the landscape of ballroom scene in the 1980s. He told me that when he was told he had one-year to live at the age of 14 he took up photography because he wanted the world to remember him as he saw himself: beautiful, whole and healthy. This was not only in direct opposition to the way the world saw people living with HIV at the time, but it was also a way of making himself visible as a gay Latino man living out and proudly with HIV in New York City. At the time and unfortunately still today, Black and Brown people are hugely absent from the larger discussion around HIV/AIDS . I love how Luna’s beautiful self-portraits and his intimate photos of friends and members of the ballroom scene reclaim images of himself and his community to show us how they really are: beautiful, whole, healthy, phenomenal.

In the series above, he embodies a pharaoh, an aesthetic he would later make into an iconic moment at a ball. He displays a quiet strength while also showing the constraints of this hyper-visible and powerful position. I love his use of character play, which makes so many references in one simple image. I am reminded of the widespread interest in Egyptians during the Harlem Renaissance, a “New Negro” reminder of a link to Black greatness as well as the reclaimed image of the self as majestic, kingly and other-worldly. Ballroom culture finds its roots in this time period and the choice of this imagery seems to nod to this era.

Play Smart Trading Cards 2019 designed by Alvaro

This year, Visual AIDS created the seventh edition of its Play Smart card series, highlighting a variety of artists related to the ballroom scene. A collector’s pack, each card contains information on PrEP and PEP, undetectability, mental health, homelessness, and HIV stigma. Each kit is packaged with internal and external condoms and lubricant. Alvaro, one of the commissioned artists, created portraits that celebrate iconic figures in the ballroom scene. The first image is of Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza, an icon of the scene who redefined ballroom through his love, service, and mentorship to the community, and his incredible artistry in categories like “Runway” and “Face.” Icon Luna Khan is represented with reference to his show-stopping Egyptian outfit and he is flanked by the magnificent Egyptt LaBeija who, aside from doing incredible social work for the LGBTQ community, has also performed as a drag queen and paved the way for many young transgender women in the ballroom scene. Displaying their images in positions of high esteem and with a crucial message, Alvaro further extends each individual’s extensive body of work both in the community and in the larger LGBTQ landscape.


The Play Smart VII pack also has a series of work from Visual AIDS Artist Member and ballroom icon Milton Garcia of the House of Ninja. Known for his cartoons, Milton includes a reference to a historic picture of the House of Xtravaganza while emphasizing female sexual agency and a message of empowerment. His recognition of both transgender and cisgender women in the piece does enormous political work in elevating both experiences of womanhood. He also made a depiction of me after I made history as the first transgender man to win a voguing category at GMHC’s annual Latex Ball this past year. Milton depicts this moment and the political intent of my work in ballroom stating “Transmen Can Vogue Too!” One aspect I love about Milton’s work is that besides his use of vibrant color and his socio-political awareness, he also includes a reference to himself in them. In this playing card, he passes down the legacy of voguing to me by giving me this prestige award at the ball. The playful aspect of these pieces has a way of making Milton visible as an important presence in the community while also making a political statement.


Kia LaBeija is a photographer, dancer, and activist who is also a legend in the ballroom community. As a Black, queer woman who was born HIV positive, she has used photography to reshape and rethink what it means to be seropositive. I was moved by her usage of self portraiture to document her story as a Black, queer woman who is living and thriving with HIV. One thing that stood out to me in the image Mimi’s Last Dance is Kia’s story of connecting to the character Mimi in the Broadway musical Rent when she saw the show at a young age. As she recalls the moment, she notes that the fictional character of Mimi allowed her to see herself as a Brown woman living and thriving with HIV in New York. I think about the ripple effect of Kia’s images, their layered meaning, her bold use of color and striking poses, and how her visibility impacts people today and those of generations to come. I was honored this past year to be photographed by her with other younger members of today’s ballroom generation including Honey LaBeija and Slim Xtravaganza of the show Pose for Out Magazine. As the new vanguard of ballroom, I appreciate being in a dialogue of self-representation with an artist who thinks so critically and carefully about her subjectivity and position in the world and handles her subjects with care.

ANTONIO LOPEZ (1943-1987)

Antonio Lopez is another Visual AIDS Artist Member who dared to center Black and Brown bodies in his work as a fashion illustrator. Lopez embodies and represents an era of fashion that was a point of genesis for the ballroom scene. As an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times, as well as a freelance artist for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, Lopez was known to have “discovered” women like Pat Cleveland, Tina Chow, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones and Jessica Lange. I was taken in by his craft and use of vibrant color and modish flair of a different era. With each carefree glance of the subject, especially in that of “Carole Labrie,” so much is said in a glance, a pose, or a smile.

DARREL ELLIS (1958-1992)

In examining the work of Darrel Ellis, I was struck by the image, Self-Portrait After Mapplethorpe Photograph. The image is part of a series of paintings of photographs that Ellis made throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. A multi-modal artist, Ellis’ work was featured in a 1989 exhibition curated by Nan Goldin entitled, “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” which highlighted artists’ personal responses to the AIDS crisis. Ellis’ painting was used as a press image and widely circulated after the show became the subject of a controversy over NEA funding. Ellis was a museum guard at the Museum of Modern Art and used the photograph from his ID badge for the second self-portrait included in this webgallery. Ellis apparently was not comfortable with Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait as he found it too “cold.” His own rendition of the image powerfully reclaims his self, similar to the other artists in this series. In these works, Ellis reshapes his own image and asks the viewer to join him in his own rendering and understanding of himself, again, as he wanted to be seen and to be known.

ROBERT FORD (1962-1994)

The title of this Fall 1992 issue of “Thing” zine, “Servin’ It!” grabbed my attention immediately. Beyond the masc-femme-butchqueen 1990s looks—white socks, black boots, unitard and all—the clear reference to ballroom lingo—serve!—snatched me and I had to dig deeper. I learned about Robert Ford and “Thing,” a Black queer underground arts zine Ford founded in Chicago in 1989 with Trent Adkins and Lawrence Warren. As Solveig Nelson notes in Artforum, the publication came out every three or four months and featured original interviews, writing and photographs by “artists, musicians, writers, activistis, and performers from queer scenes across the US.” Ford said he wanted to create a magazine that would “be a way of documenting our existence and contribution to society.” I love that Ford was particularly interested in showing something “from our point of view,” allowing for a sense of agency and multiplicity of voices in Black and Latino LGBTQ community. After controversy surrounding the film Paris is Burning in 1990, the magazine offered icons and pioneers from the ballroom scene like Dorian Corey and Willi Ninja a chance to voice their own opinion in the matter.

*I intentionally use the term Latino instead of “Latinx” as the ballroom community is a multi-generational space and many within the community prefer this term.