From Carmelita Tropicana to Dynasty Handbag, we celebrate the subversive artists using performance art to present a post-patriarchal vision of sexuality and gender
Where the AIDS crisis devastated 1980s and 90s New York, decimating a generation of creativity, it also fuelled an intercultural discourse that would go on to widen and complicate society’s understanding of sexuality beyond the narrow limitations of heteronormativity. Academia has since rarefied the era’s defining artists (from Nan Goldin and David Wojnarowicz to Robert Mapplethorpe) under the banner of Queer Theory, but many theorists have also overlooked the role of race, ethnicity and otherness in the unique experiences of queer artists.
Jose Esteban Muñoz wasn’t one of those academics. The late queer theorist spent his entire career presenting an unwavering belief in queer futurity and spotlighting queer artists of colour and other non-conforming identities cast aside by academia. Here are the artists, performers, musicians, filmmakers and incendiary icons who have long been making art that sits at the queer frontier, resisting any formal canonisation. It’s an artistic process Muñoz himself dubbed “disidentification” in his 1999 publication of the same title: Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Politics of Performance.
Carmelita Tropicana, “drag terrorist” Vaginal Davis, Latina filmmaker Nao Bustamante, Jibz Cameron and her hysterical alter ego Dynasty Handbag, and downtown legend Kembra Pfahler all make work which speaks directly to the experiences, performances, and hopes of queer individuals. Moreover, these artists negate identity in multiplex ways. It’s time to get to know some of the art world’s most under-appreciated female and intersex, artists whose collective misalignments with the cultural and ideological mainstream has fashioned a queer utopia which remains aggressive, uncensored, and fiercely unassimilated.
Vaginal Creme Davis
Vaginal Creme Davis is a revolutionary drag terrorist, subversive symposium headliner at universities around the world, revered cult icon and the intersex doyenne of performance and media art. Her diverse body of work bluntly resists any mode of real definition. From her musical contribution to the queercore movement to multifarious videos and performances, and her irreverent sculptures, paintings, writings, performances and even operas, it’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to Davis’ artistic output. Perhaps what’s most captivating is her ability to survive and thrive in phobic majoritarian spheres like punk scenes, despite never once conforming to any phantasm of prescribed normativity.
The LA-born and Berlin-based artist first probed blackness with her musical group Afro Sisters (1978) which she fronted with two white women, and later with her punk zine, Fertile La Toyah Jackson (1982-1991). In another performance titled The White to Be Angry, Davis plays a black woman who has had both racial and gender reconstructive surgery to become a bearded, bald, white supremacist male. It’s all distressing and hilarious and perhaps exactly why Jose Esteban Muñoz dubbed her work “counterpublic terrorism”, because Davis’ use of humour and parody is a “disidentificatory strategy” that’s both alarming and mesmerising at once.
Alina Troyano first burst onto New York’s downtown performing arts scene in the 1980s with her alter ego, the spitfire Carmelita Tropicana, and her counterpart, the irresistible Latin macho Pingalito Betancourt, at New York City’s WOW Café, a home for wayward lesbians and a key fixture of the East Village performance scene. Troyano began her performance career with a popular talk show, Chit Chat With Carmelita, in which she interviewed anyone and everyone, quickly followed by numerous theatre pieces, readings, musicals and later films (directed by her sister Ela Troyano). Her most famous works, Your Kunst Is Your Waffen (1993) and Milk of Amnesia (1994), are all accented by her outrageous humour and overt sexuality.
However, Carmelita’s drag performances are concerned with more than just biological or gender difference. The rotating romp of overzealous characters that populate her works have always parodied identities across class, national and generational lines, and relied on a performance of self-enactment that draws on Troyano's own heritage as both a US Latina and Cuban lesbian.
Nao Bustamante is a Mexican-American artist whose work spans performance art, video installation, filmmaking and writing, while ranging from the comically outrageous to dead serious. She once rescued herself from a bag of water she had taped around her head in one particular jarring video work. In another 90s performance, she took to the stage in a skin-baring Aztec-inspired outfit, and got white men in the audience to take bites from a burrito that she'd strapped to her hips. Another time, she faked her way onto The Joan Rivers Show pretending to be an exhibitionist.
Though jocular on the surface, Bustamante’s performances offer up her vulnerable body to the negative affects of her audiences. She has also addressed more serious topics without reflexive irony, dealing with issues affecting women in Latin America, such as sex tourism. Her most transgressive work, however, appears as both a passive submission and bold political statement. In a multimedia performance titled Silver & Gold (2010), Bustamante channels Dominican film starlet Maria Montz (muse to underground polymath Jack Smith) and uses her own body to probe Hollywood orientalism and portray sexual awakening in an exuberantly camp display.
Jibz Cameron is a Los Angeles-based performance/video artist who has been performing as her alter ego Dynasty Handbag for over a decade. Handbag’s manic energy blurs the lines of sub-conscious neurosis and theatrical performativity, to punchy comedic effect. The self-professed “lesbian robot clown” might resemble your delusional aunt on the brink of a nervous breakdown, but her disarming lack of social boundaries or proper etiquette is a sobering display in our artificially manicured and deftly articulate society.
From Good Morning Evening Feelings (2015), where Dynasty stars as both the host and guests of her own daytime talk show featuring lesbian chefs and useless exercise routines, to Soggy Glasses: A Homo's Odyssey (2014) – a feminist-queer interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey – her performances are always pleasurably disorienting. Handbag’s distinct brand of elastic kitsch and divisive humour, presented through her theatre-of-the-self and incessant self-parodying, hinges on her authentic expression of pain, loneliness and depression. Dynasty’s camp femininity might be outrageous, but it’s an aptly performative response to womanhood’s historic oppression and aggressive censorship in Western society.
Since moving from Los Angeles to New York City in the early 80s, Kembra Pfahler has been a cult downtown legend, a Calvin Klein model, a punk rocker, screen goddess, curator, and performance artist. Yet, she is perhaps best known as the enigmatic front women of glam-cult, death punk metal band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Whether she’s founding art movements like “Availablism” (a term to denote the use of material that’s around at any given time to create performance), touring with Karen Black in the middle of nowhere, or checking you out on Grindr (another performative device), Pfahler will still be donning a three-tier, bouffant black wig with haute-horror bodypaint. She has strapped bowling balls to her feet and walked around the Lower East Side, and stood upside down while paint-filled eggs are cracked between her legs. Yet, her most memorable performance remains Richard Kern’s Sewing Circle (1992), where she had her vagina sewn shut by an Asian woman – performance artist Lisa Resurreccion – while wearing nothing but a “Young Republicans” T-shirt. Pfahler’s sexually charged, monster aesthetic manages to distort any conventional notion of female beauty and sexuality, but with a palpable, deep rage that’s as fixating as it is unnerving.