Now in its ninth season, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on VH1 (formerly on Logo) has brought drag queens out of the bars and into the homes of millions. While the show has helped drag garner more attention and acceptance among the mainstream, it also feeds into a particular image of what drag is — high drama, femininity and glamour — characterizations that limit the broad spectrum of drag.
A new exhibit at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts seeks to expand people’s understanding of drag.
“’Art is a Drag‘ is a series of photos of makeup. My twin (Rachel Britton) and I have been working on it for a year and a half,” said Kaylee Britton, a studio art student with an emphasis in illustration at Grand Valley State University. “The idea is to present drag, drag artists and drag queens in general as fine art because we found there is a disconnect between performance art and fine art and how drag is represented. Drag isn’t usually represented in the art category.”
Britton also wants to make drag more accessible to a broader audience by bringing it out of the bar and club scene.
“Attached to that idea is to put drag in a fine art gallery space, which makes it more accessible to people and less intimidating to go to,” she said. “It can be intimidating for some people to go to a nightclub setting, where drag usually exists. We want to put it in this gallery setting so it’s easier for people to get to or so it’s not as intimidating to attend.”
“Art is a Drag” takes place from 2-9 p.m. Friday at the UICA. The exhibit includes a live drag show, multiple performances and a behind-the-scenes look into how performers apply makeup to transform into their lively personas. Attendees also are encouraged to dress in their best drag ensemble and participate in a costume contest.
Britton said three photographs from the “Art is a Drag” series are on display and there will be a slide show presenting the full series. The drag show will include performances by Salam Massacre (Britton), Jack Dup (Rachel Britton), Ginger Ambrosia and Siren.
“At the end of the show, we just want people to recognize drag as a form of art,” Britton said. “I feel like there are a lot of negative stereotypes that go along with drag.”
Britton said oftentimes people think of drag as weird or odd or are confused by it. “We want people to see the whole spectrum of drag and what it can do. It is entertainment, but it also can be fine art, as well,” she said.
That includes those who can perform in drag. “Drag can take many shapes and doesn’t exclusively belong in one space or by one type of person. You don’t have to be a gay cisgender man to do drag as a woman, and you don’t have to be a gay cisgender woman to do drag as a man.
“I am a bioqueen, meaning I am a biological woman that performs as an exaggerated woman character. I also go by drag queen,” Britton said. “Rachel is a drag king, but is also gender neutral, so Rachel performs as a masculine character.”
She added, “We also want attendees to understand that drag does not just exist in queer spaces but should be respected as a legitimate art form if you are outside of the LGBT+ community.
“We want people to have access to drag, which is why ‘Art is a Drag’ primarily tours in artist spaces, so people will recognize drag as an art form versus just as a hobby. We are trying to get drag in other non-queer spaces so more people see it, and in the long run, it will make the environment safer for LGBT+ expression.”
Britton was first exposed to drag while she was in middle school. “I don’t know how I came across it. I just instantly latched on to it,” she said. “I knew this is totally something I want to do in the future.
Britton said she always took advantage of Halloween to dress in drag and once she got to Grand Valley State University (where Rachel Britton also is enrolled in the photography program), she discovered the school’s amateur drag show and met drag queen and fellow student Ginger Ambrosia. “She showed us the ropes,” Britton said.
Britton is using the UICA exhibit as a fundraiser for her trip to the Austin International Drag Festival in November, where she was selected to perform. “Art is a Drag” also will be on display in November at the Exhibition Space of Mary Idema Pew Library at GVSU.
*Photos by Rachel Britton
In the video below, Jack Dup, Salem Massacre and Beeka Darwin perform at Electric Forest 2017.