Interview: Rashaad Newsome on Voguing, Heraldry, and FKA Twigs

Rashaad Newsome, still image from "Shade Compositions," performance, SFMoMA, 2012.
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New York-based Rashaad Newsome has many credits to his name, among them “King of Arms” (he is a master in the centuries-old art of heraldry), Father of the House of Arms, and Parrain of the House of Ladurée in Paris (he is a mentor and manager to several dancers in the NYC Vogue scene). These credits demonstrate his interest in being both teacher and student. He has helped to bring attention to young, black, queer musicians such as Mykki Blanco, Cakes da Killa, and Ian Isiah; he has orchestrated hip-hop MC battles; in his piece Five, at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, he exposed many in the artworld to voguing, a dance form that continues its fraught, complex flirtation with the mainstream.

In addition to Newsome’s intensive work in heraldry, he has engaged in casual but extensive ethnographic and linguistic research into global iterations of “shade” – a form of subtle verbal and nonverbal insult typically attributed to African-American women. His shade compositions series, for which he enlists groups of people from around the world to perform geographically specific iterations of “shade” in a kind of minimalist chorus, demonstrates his additional talent as composer and musician.

We spoke to Newsome on the occasion of his first show in Canada at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), curated by Suzanne Carte. It comprises his ostentatious collages riffing on heraldic motifs, two videos reflecting his specific interest in vogue-femme culture, and selections from shade compositions.

You have an ongoing and emphatic interest in vogue and voguing culture, so I assume you’ve seen it fluctuate in terms of the attention mainstream culture has paid to it. Why is it such a fascination for you?

Voguing is a practice that was created out of the community that I’m a part of as a black, queer man. Voguing and breakdancing were born in the same place at the same time. Breaking came into prominence but Voguing did not because so many people, including the leaders of the voguing community, were lost to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Then you had people outside the community who came in. Paris is Burning [Jenny Livingstone’s 1990 documentary about the ballroom voguing scene] is great, and covers the early form of that culture, but it’s been growing ever since.

So it was really important for me as a person from the community to think about this practice: How can I incorporate it into my work? What can it offer me that maybe more traditional art [media] can’t? Through the process of making this work, can I use it as a way to employ and uplift the community, to culturally educate, with integrity, this other community I’m part of, the canonized artworld? It’s a juggling act.

I don’t make this work as a flaneur. I’m the father of a house. It’s a real, legitimate part of my life.

All the way back to the beginnings of voguing, it’s a culture and vernacular tied-up with appropriation. It’s popularly recognized as this satirical, parodic approach to “high” or white culture as expressed in fashion magazines. There’s this colonial moment in 1990 with Madonna and Jenny Livingstone bringing voguing to the masses. How do you negotiate these dynamics? How are they being negotiated by the people who vogue?

You have voguing, the community, the culture – it’s a lot of different things. There’s music. There’s runway. There are different levels of performance. But I’m particularly interested in the dance form; that’s what I’ve been trying to preserve and abstract in my own way.

To speak of magazines as a source for performance – it’s not true anymore. That’s a very old idea, which is why it’s important for me to make the work I’m making. The idea that most people have of voguing is so antiquated. They see Paris is Burning but that [style] was done in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Vogue-femme is a style that’s not been documented. It came into fruition in the ‘90s. That is the particular era that I’m interested in. I mean, I’m interested in it all, but because that’s an untold story, it’s a platform for me to tell that story from the position of someone in the community.

But in terms of appropriation, I’m also working on this film about the globalization of vogue-femme performance. I think people look at appropriation as a bad thing, but personally I don’t see it that way. One just has to be critically vigilant. I think culture lacks fixed boundaries. It’s important and vital for culture to move and be shaped by different people; otherwise, it gets stagnant.

Because the dance was so co-opted so early in its creation, and not told from the perspective of the community where it comes from, there’s not the luxury to have it exist only in the ballroom. It should be brought to the masses but by us. What’s important to me is that the people who are at the helm become legitimate; they can look a lot of different ways but they just have to be legitimately involved, and not do it as a fad or culture vulture, because then it’s just history repeating itself.

Voguing is often talked about as this underground thing, but via the work I’ve been doing and different people and friends in other fields like music and fashion, and the internet, it’s been growing like wildfire. It’s in Russia. As a community, it’s this self-supporting organism.

What are some specific, recent examples of mainstream representation or appropriation of the vogue-femme aesthetic?

The new video [“Glass and Patron”] by FKA Twigs. She came to New York and went to a couple of different balls and I would see her out a lot. She found dancers, some of which I work with, really fascinating and started to get them to train her.  I think it’s so great the way she’s gone about doing it because she really did train. Then when she brought it to the masses – everyone in that video is also from the scene. The video is good. I wouldn’t say it’s the best example of voguing [laughs], but I think it’s great and needs to happen.

I suppose the internet encourages more and more engagement, gets the message out there, but can also encourage a bit of a superficial or cosmetic engagement.

But it’s still great. The internet plays such a huge role. The thing about vogue is that it’s an open source. There are, like, five elements that make up the dance and what’s so interesting about it is that it’s like five words – how can you put those words into a sentence? Whatever you bring from your personal history is how you bring it together. The work I’ve done around shade relates on that level. I was thinking about black vernacular and how that’s associated with the black female and how in some way it has also become an open source. I’m really interested in the complications of that.

So then why, for that piece [shade compositions], are there only women in that chorus? Why not men?

There are now. The one at AGYU has men, women, all different races. When I started the work at The Kitchen I started with black women because I was really interested in this particular vernacular and how it was associated with black females. And over the course of several years I had been doing my own ethnographic research of this vernacular and how it was being appropriated in other places.

This piece has a very long life. I did a couple of pieces that were all-female and then I introduced males. I always planned to do that because one of the things that came out of my research is that the stereotypical body language for black females is also the stereotypical body language for gay males, globally.

You start to question, “is this a performance or is this this person’s identity?” Who’s really to say? You hear a lot of rappers lately talking about how hip-hop complicates racism, because everybody’s participating in this culture that’s black culture. I think there’s something to that. There’s this way that culture’s being shared globally; I’m really interested in complicating the conversation around race.

We’re certainly living in a time of intense online negotiation about who’s allowed to say what, and how they’re allowed to say it. Last year there was Sierra Mannie’s piece about white gay men appropriating the language of black women and how that’s not okay, and then Azealia Banks defending her right to use “faggot” while calling out white gays for singing along to her songs that use the N-word.

How do you see this in the context of the visibility of black queerness or queer blackness in popular culture as well as the artworld?

I think we’re in a very fragmented place and I play with this pictorially in the images I make. The bodies are very fragmented. These bodies and these people have a very fragmented culture.

In a lot of ways if you are not white, male, and with some wealth, you arrive in pieces in this country. I think a lot about that fragmented place and I play with it pictorially in the images I make. The bodies are very fragmented. These bodies and these people have a very fragmented culture. In relation to the use of that terminology I just think it’s very complicated. Personally for me, being from New Orleans, I have great aunts who that word was used against in a very real way. I feel so akin to the way James Baldwin feels about it; that’s not a word that relates to me; I’m not a fan of it. I feel exactly the same way in terms of what Azealia Banks said about “faggot.”  But I feel what she’s talking about, too, in regard to the messy way in which white people are appropriating black culture, and shade compositions speaks to that.

In one version of shade there’s a white male and he’s performing those gestures very authentically – what does that mean? There’s this vernacular being shared, a vernacular that is very stigmatize, but what’s complicated is that he can “perform” it without the stigma, but they can’t.

I’m a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which of course appropriates ballroom culture. What strikes me about it is how it negotiates this idea of battling you’re interested in – via your work with heraldry, MC culture, voguing, more – this idea that it’s still a contest and there are hierarchies, with people being judged and placed above each other and eliminated. Shade is thrown. But then Ru’s the den mother, full of love for her children …

And everyone’s crying all the time.

Exactly. You could see it as a sort of doublespeak. You’ve got a black queen battling a white queen, maybe from very different places of privilege. They’re lip-synching for their lives and the white queen wins and the black queen’s got to go home. I’m wondering if that’s something that’s interesting to you, this idea of friendly battles, racially or socially transcendent battling. Do you like that tension? Do you see the competitive aspect of battling as necessary and empowering?

Voguing is voguing. When you’re being judged, you’re being judged on how strong your performance is. If you’re white, Asian, Latino … if you come on that ballroom floor and you tear it, you tore it. That’s it. And everybody’s going to live for you after you did that. It’s complicated. I don’t think race comes into it. I think it’s about a strong performer. When I’m making that work, when I’m thinking of tournament and battles, I was really thinking about that idea of battle and how it runs through all the work, the MCs battling for a position within hip-hop, the knights battling in the court, vogue kids battling for their title in the ballroom, pictorial battles of foreground vs background in my collages And then I’m taking on the role of the herald, organizing battles and keeping the score.
So at times you’re very aware of occupying and playing with a position of power in your work, in terms of being the orchestrator?

Yes. There’s a shift in that power too because I’m setting up these performances but in many ways I’m at the mercy of the performers. Specifically with shade I’m making this work with these performers and the work is completely dependent on them; without them there’s nothing. I’m responding to them; they’re responding to me; and the audience is also responding to them. So I am in control but the power is shifting throughout the whole piece at all times.

You’ve collaborated with Mykki Blanco, who reportedly said at Art Basel Miami Beach last year that Klaus Biesenbach is very deliberate about which black artists he wants to institutionally “hug” or include. What’s it like being a queer black artist working in the New York artworld right now?

It’s a very exciting time. I met Mykki Blanco when he was about 16 or 17 years-old, when he spent a few day in a black queer collective I was living in; I have since watched him grow in to the incredible force. Right now I feel like the biggest American export is black culture and the people who are really pushing that culture forward are young black queer voices. Shayne Oliver is the director of Hood by Air, one of the most important fashion brands; Ian Isiah is in my video and he’s the brand ambassador for Hood by Air; Cakes da Killa is in the video and Cakes was the first gay rapper to be on Hot 97. And I see all of these kids as my kids! I’ve known most of them since they were really young. It’s such an exciting time because everyone’s doing their thing and everyone’s working together. I think it is so important for people, particularly young, black queer people, to see black queer people succeeding and working together, because it is not something you get the opportunity to see often.

Regarding what was said about Klaus, I can’t speak on it, as I was not there, but you do have to think about that as a black artist. Race is so omnipresent in the artworld. Race is a problem in the world, the artworld is a tiny part of that world, so obviously race is a problem in the artworld. There’s just so much work to be done. For me as an artist who works in the way I do, what I think about more is that the idea of only being able to exist within the artworld is terrifying. I think more about sustainability, not depending on a very flawed system. It’s very different to be an artist now than in the past. Work like photography and video, which I do, you can take no traditional routes to get it done. So I think a lot about making work outside of the white cube. And I think that’s really important to me because it allows you to bypass some of the problems within the artworld.

I have my own production company. I do music videos; I make music. I think things are changing. You have brands who give money to institutions, but the brands are starting to realize that they want the cultural capital and the institution is just a middle man. So now they’re working directly with the artist, and they’re not as hands-y because if they know your work, they trust you.

I’ve been working a lot with Adidas lately. You’re not always going to have a museum or gallery that’s going to support your work. You’ve got to think about other ways to support yourself. It’s a different negotiation for different people but it’s great for me. I’ve been able to work with some great people to support some projects, and they gave me the freedom to do what I needed to do and to be able to work with people I really wanted to work with, in a way that sometimes the institutions and the galleries can’t. And then you can make the work, and it’s strong and undeniable, they’re like, Damn. They have no choice but to respect it. You just have to take that space.

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