A little over two years ago, I was sent on assignment from New Times to photograph an underground party called Counter Corner, popping off at the grungy Corner Bar in downtown Miami. That night, local producer Otto Von Schirach was there shooting a music video featuring a fierce lineup of local drag queens. But these queens were unlike any I’d seen before: Each presented a drag persona that embodied both masculine and feminine traits, such as hairy chests and full beards paired with six-inch stilettos and expertly applied makeup.
Though Miami didn't invent the bearded drag queen, its queer scene encourages a spectrum of nonbinary interpretations of gender. These artists’ performances carry that same complexity in style and content — fresh, clever and thematic. At its best, it is performance art in drag, as opposed to lip-syncing female impersonation. I was immediately intrigued. Something strangely creative was happening here, and I felt like it needed to be documented.
As I continued showing up with my camera, what began as a collection of street portraits slowly evolved over two years into a collaborative photography and short-film project exploring identity expression and contemporary drag in Miami. That project, "SeaChange," opens with a reception Saturday, June 9, at the University of Miami gallery inside the iconic Wynwood Building.
Counter Corner, which celebrated its last party a few months ago, was the first queer space in Miami specializing in creating a platform for conceptual performance art and experimental expression to exist. "Queer" is an important umbrella term that has been reclaimed to describe an individual, space, or kind of event that is inclusive of all people: gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, etc. There is actually a geographical divide in Miami between the established gay spaces in Miami Beach and the variety of queer parties multiplying within nongay venues (such as Gramps, Las Rosas, Lemon City Studios, and Churchill’s) on Miami’s mainland.
Drag has evolved into an open-ended form of performance art that plays with expressing ideas rather than constructing the archetype of a woman/man. At its core, it is a performance of gender. Queen Mother RuPaul once said almost two decades ago: "You wake up naked, and the rest is drag." Her statement is meant to be funny, but it’s also a perceptive observation about how identity expression applies to all of us. Simply by getting dressed in the morning, whether intentional or not, you are choosing how to present yourself to the world. That presentation typically carries a learned gender association.
As a portrait photographer, I am fascinated with how people choose to present themselves to my lens. Drag is just as much about psychology as it is about physicality, and the two seem to be inextricably linked. How is it that dressing up can allow you to become someone else? I wanted to find a way to explore the minds of Miami’s prominent queer performers and to give them a chance to speak for themselves.
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Each artist has a unique approach to process and performance based on their perception of self. The more time I spent with local icons Queef Latina, Miss Toto, Jupiter Velvet, and Kunst, the more nuanced my understanding of drag became. It’s about more than just creating a performance or persona; it’s about constructing a fantasy that others can experience as well. Miami is a microcosm for this global queer movement and represents an ideological shift within a new generation that embraces gender and sexuality as a spectrum. Each of these artists developed their own distinct style and persona, but they are all working within the same performative medium, and it is Miami that unites them.
"SeaChange" connotes a tremendous transformation of one's self or a paradigm change within a population at large. Our project explores these dynamics through multimedia portraits that realize internal fantasy and present these personas as living concepts integrated into the Miami landscapes that helped shape them.
Karli Evans is an artist, photographer, filmmaker, and regular contributor to New Times.
"SeaChange." Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday from Saturday, June 9, through June 24 at the University of Miami Gallery at the Wynwood Building, 2750 NW Third Ave., Suite 4, Miami; 305-284-3161; as.miami.edu/art. Admission is free. An opening reception will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, June 9.