On Thursday evening Atlanta’s Legendary Children finally brought their celebration of drag culture to Savannah. The exhibit (up through Sunday, January 12 at Dollhouse Productions) features photos by Jon Dean, Blake England, Blane Bussey, Maggie Towe, Matthew Terrell and Kevin O. Their muses? Up-and-coming Atlanta drag stars Brigitte Bidet, Cayenne Rouge, Edie Cheezburger, Ellisorous Rex, Evah Destruction, Jaye Lish, Kryeqan Kally, Lavonia Elberton, Mo’Dest Volgare and Violet Chachki.
The opening reception also featured the premiere of Jon Dean and Blake England’s short film “Godless Girls”. Check it out here. Look below for a gallery of photos from the evening shot by SAI Staff Photographer Peterson Worrell!
Jon Dean and Violet Chachki took a moment to speak with me about the controversy surrounding the show, the politicization of drag, and the evolving response to their work.
Kayla Goggin: I understand that the show is a collaboration between yourself and five other photographers, as well as a handful of prominent drag queens from Atlanta. Can you speak a bit about how the group came to form?
Jon Dean: One of the best aspects of the project has been the collaboration and relationships we have formed. I became interested in the scene after going to see The Other Show at Jungle Atlanta, hosted by Edie Cheezburger. I was introduced to some of the other artists and queens, and began scheduling photo shoots. Everyone had such a unique style and nobody was afraid to be weird or try something different. Our main goal was to bring something crazy and queer to Atlanta Celebrates Photography, and that’s what we did.
KG: On the project’s website, you talk about how the name “Legendary Children” references the film Paris is Burning, explaining that the intent is to show a snapshot of urban, gay culture and reveal its diversity. There’s been a pretty rich gay history in Atlanta since the 70s – how do you feel it’s evolving lately?
JD: Atlanta certainly has a vibrant drag history – going back to RuPaul’s first punk performances and all of the stories you hear about Backstreet, which is all before my time. We wanted to put our own mark on Atlanta’s queer history. There’s so many great artists popping up right now in Atlanta that are documenting and dealing with these issues. We have our share of problems, but I’m very proud of our city.
KG: I’ve heard there’s some competition between the group of girls you work with and another group in Atlanta. You admitted in an interview with Vice that the Atlanta scene is quite competitive – Edie Cheezburger even commented “There’s lots of attitude”. Can you elaborate on that? Do you see the competition as something positive that helps the community?
JD: There is a healthy amount of competition in the scene, but I think it only motivates these queens to work harder and be better. Our queens are fearless and have grown immensely in the span of one year.
Even in Atlanta, there is still resistance to the idea of combining art shows with performance and drag. People have their own view of what drag is – pageants, dive bars, or the filthy stuff you see in a John Waters movie. They are all correct, but we want to bring you all of those things at once. These queens aren’t just entertainers, they are activists, artists, and champions of their community.
KG: I know there were some censorship issues with the show in Atlanta – particularly with two photos of Violet Chachki (one of them yours, the other by Blake England). Were you surprised at the outcry around those images? I thought it odd considering there was no attempt to censor a painting of a nude woman in the same gallery.
JD: I was very surprised by the reaction to the photographs. We weren’t hanging up anything that was distasteful or controversial, so it all came as a surprise. It felt very personal because this is something we had all poured our hearts into. It’s interesting to me, because I used to be terrified to go to drag shows. Drag queens will be the first ones to pinch your fat and say you have a terrible haircut, but I find that exciting now. With drag and all forms of art, there should be no filter.
Violet Chachki: I actually was surprised. Drag itself is meant to be controversial. Ive seen and heard so many things while working and while backstage. I guess I’ve become desensitized. You learn to focus on the beauty and the art of it all. At least I have. In mainstream society, the female body is sexualized as a soft delicate object and the male body is seen as something strong and powerful. So when you blur the lines between the two many people just don’t know how to react. Drag is basically a big middle finger with a sickening ring and a spot light.
KG: Will those photos be censored at the Savannah show?
JD: Heavens no!
KG: In a piece written for Vice, photographer Matthew Terrell wrote “I think all of this drama speaks to drag’s transgressive power. When we allow drag queens to be the ambassadors of the gay community, you could argue that they bring about some kind of social change.” Do you agree? Have you seen any evidence of that?
JD: I definitely do. Any act of social discord is bound to bring about change. Showcasing Violet Chachki’s balls on a gallery wall is a small step. A man putting on a padded ass and fishnet stockings is an act of rebellion and that in itself is powerful. Drag queens have always been on the front lines, marching in parades, and protesting for our equal rights. That’s nothing new, but it’s evolving.
VC: I do think queens have power even a responsibility to generate social change. I love seeing someone uncomfortable at the beginning of a show and by the end they are laughing and celebrating, some are even complimentary. Even just existing as a queen going out before or after a gig. Some people don’t know we exist. By simply occupying space we start to change perspectives on gender. Even a negative reaction can be a step in the right direction.
KG: As a follow up to the previous question – the press release for Legendary Children talks about its desire to bring “subversive drag to diverse audiences” and to “break out of the usual drag diorama”. What has been the reaction to those performances? If we think of drag as a political action and a subversive one at that – there is definitely an intent to illicit a response.
JD: The response to the Atlanta show was so overwhelmingly warm and positive. A majority of people there were drag show virgins, and they had a ball! I don’t know if they knew what they were getting into. That in itself justifies what we are doing. It excites me to see drag becoming more accessible and performances popping up in unexpected places. For example, Jaye Lish hosted a monthly drag show this year at Trader Vic’s, an international, family restaurant chain. Brigitte Bidet hosted a holiday drag show at a local gallery, Whitespace. Kryean Kally made the front cover of Creative Loafing.
Drag isn’t taboo anymore. Just watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
KG: Based on the work I saw from you when you were still in Savannah, this isn’t your first foray into the examination of queer culture through your photography. It’s been interesting to see the development of your work through the Legendary Children show. Where do you see yourself in 2014? And where do you hope to see the legendary children?
JD: It was a natural progression working with these queens – and I hope to do more of it in 2014. Blake England and I just completed a 9 minute short film that we are premiering at the Dollhouse show, so there’s that. My goal for this year is to do more video work and take some time to relax and refocus. Legendary Children isn’t going anywhere. We are going to take some time and see where we’re headed and what we can do next. None of us expected to be taken on this journey for so long.
KG: Anything else you’d like to add?
JD: Tip your queens!
The Legendary Children exhibit will be up at Dollhouse Productions until Sunday, January 12. Stop by between 12-5pm to see the show.