The artist, composer, and ballroom community superstar walks us through his Brooklyn studio as he prepares for two new exhibitions.
Rashaad Newsome only moved into his new studio five days ago, but already the airy Bed-Stuy space is littered with thousands of disembodied paper eyes, mouths, and limbs. Coffee is brewing, and a YouTube video of a bell hooks panel discussion — the infamous “Beyonce is a terrorist” one — bellows through speakers hooked up to the artist’s iMac. None of the works for either of Rashaad’s two upcoming shows are finished, but stepping inside his studio is to step right into the guts of his thematic labyrinth, a surrealist (and literal) collage of vogue performance, architecture, ornament, and agency. It’s also a pretty convincing testament to the breakneck pace at which his mind moves.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of different writers and theorists who speak about feminism, from a lot of different perspectives,” he says after turning down the volume on his computer. “The show came out of a question that I hate, which is, ‘What is your work about?'” But even questions he hates are ones Rashaad feels compelled to push further. “I started to think about what was a continuous theme in my work, and that theme is the importance and complexity of agency.”
This Is What I Want to See, which opens this week at the Studio Museum in Harlem, uses collages and video to expand on the complexities and nuances of the vogue dance form that thrived in the neighborhood in the 70s. The show will also function as a gateway into Rashaad’s first solo exhibition at De Buck Gallery in Chelsea, Stop Playing in My Face, which explores interpretations of agency within transgender and cisgender women of color communities via explosive works that re-appropriate bodies cut from magazines. On one table a giant collage of Amber Rose taking a selfie features a glistening naked butt used as a shoulder. Over cups of coffee, which turn into cups of wine over the course of nearly three hours, we discuss the mainstreaming of vogue performance and the importance of claiming space.
“Bedroom Eyes” (2016)
Can you tell me about the cut-out body parts and your move from performance to object-making?
The bodies in the work are a major component because when I came to working with heraldry, what I was interested in is how heraldry is the symbol made of symbols. Every component of that image represents perceived status, rank, power, and pedigree. So I thought, “What would be images in popular culture today that communicate that?” By using that as a design formula for making these images, you sort of reveal certain societal woes. I go straight to the source — magazines, the internet, advertising — so you start to see beauty standards, very clear hierarchies, ideas of wealth and position and power. I’m taking these images, then I’m using them to create images that in some ways comment on that. They become politicized in a sense, which is very much at the core of what surrealism was. By going to the source and getting these images from magazines, obviously it brings you to women, because within popular culture, women are sold as objects most of the time.
What type of magazines were you looking at?
I was particularly interested in King, and these kind of urban magazines… this [points to a page stuck to the wall] is Black Lingerie, this really is like a platform for a lot of the girls who work in the urban modeling industry — video vixens, and girls who are often featured in music videos. So I was asking myself, “Could the misogynist culture of hip-hop have offered these women some mobility?” Because they normally would not get a job in the traditional modeling industry. I was also thinking about agency. For me, agency is at the core of feminism. I feel like older models of feminism brought in the concept of the outside gaze, or the male gaze, but to have agency is to be aware of that. To me, and this is a question — “Is this not some form of post-feminism?” For instance bell hooks was saying you cannot recoup the violating image, but there can be a reclaiming and a retooling of that image. Is that what’s happening? Then I’m thinking, “What can a liberatory sexual image look like?” It has really yet to be imaged, which is why abstraction makes sense, because abstraction is a way for you to image something that doesn’t exist.
Was starting with magazines a conscious decision?
Well, when I started this work I started with catalogs — auction house catalogs. The first images I used when I started to communicate rank and power and things like that were images of jewelry. Part of that reason was because advertising images of jewelry play with light, so it allowed me to work with a static material that still allowed me some sort of play in terms of light and depth. I was also thinking about early No Limit album covers, which for me were really interesting art — coming from the city of New Orleans, which was the birthplace of bling. From there, it went into looking at popular culture, magazines, and the internet. Working with magazines is also a way to pull something really directly from the culture. Magazines are very clearly speaking from popular culture, so to pull something from that is to really pull something directly from the mind of popular culture.
How is vogue performance incorporated into the collages?
I was looking a lot at past vogue performances that I had choreographed, and using that as a starting point for the movement in the piece. I’m looking at these videos and performances that I did with trans women, but then going to these magazines and using cisgender women to create the bodies. I’m looking at how similar these two bodies are, but also at how similar they exist in society. It brings me again back to abstraction. How do you image a body that doesn’t exist or doesn’t even have a language yet? The eyes and the mouth are all from those magazines, and that’s a way for me to give those women some agency.
Why did you decide to name the second exhibition after trans YouTuber Samantha James?
She did a video called “Stop Playing in My Face,” where she’s breaking down what that phrase means. When the show started to develop I was walking around my studio and seeing all these faces, and I was like, “That’s going to be the title.” So I reached out to her — I knew her from the ballroom scene — and said she could come and host the show. But then she went to jail, so I’m hoping that she will be out by the opening. Originally it was just a title, but then I started to think about the work in relation to her and in relation to agency and her being a trans woman. It’s hard being a marginalized person, and so many people lose their way and abuse something to try to cope with being in a world that doesn’t accept them. For her to even take the phone and use that digital space, she’s in a way created her own reality show just from her cell phone. It’s fully produced by her — she’s the executive producer, she’s the cinematographer, she’s the scriptwriter, and she’s getting the funds to do it. In a way that’s a form of agency, that taking and claiming space. As small of a space as that is, it’s still important.
How do you feel about vogue increasingly increasingly entering the mainstream?
I think it’s great. For me it goes back to agency and also autonomy. Not that Paris Is Burningwasn’t a good film, but it was told by someone who wasn’t a part of the community. Being someone in the community, it’s been very important for me and my work to always do it with the community and make clear that it’s not coming from an outside perspective. I’m actually working on a film about the culture and the globalization of the culture. It’s going to be centered around Paris, London, South Africa, and Tokyo. I’ve shot in Paris already and I’m working on going to the other locations.
Text by Text Hannah Ongley