“Strike a pose,” Madonna commands in her 1990 hit single, “Vogue.” It was this David Fincher-directed video that brought voguing to the mainstream–but the dance had originated decades earlier, in the late 1960s, when the queer black and latino communities of Harlem’s ballroom scene started imitating the dramatic poses of Vogue magazine models. And though it’s been co-opted by many more pop stars since Madonna (Lady Gaga, Willow Smith), the voguing subculture today is alive and kicking.
In The Fire Flies (Baltimore/Paris), a new solo show at New York’s Julie Meneret Gallery, Parisian photographer Frederic Nauczyciel shines a light on the voguing communities of Baltimore and Paris ghettos. Clad in angel wings, leopard print, and iridescent spandex, these voguers strike modelesque poses, splayed hands framing faces, limbs as angled and defined as marionettes. “I was moved by the poetics of survival that I encountered, as much as the flamboyant freedom of voguing,” Nauzyciel says.
The dance’s electrified glamour contrasts starkly with a backdrop of graffitied brick walls and cement lots, revealing how the theatrical dance offers a transcendent escape. For Nauzyciel’s inner city subjects, who often have to hide their sexuality in their daily lives, voguing turns gender into a fantastical performance. Unlike drag, which lends itself to cartoonishly feminine personas, voguers play at a wider range of characters, performing as thugs, business executives, schoolboys, butch queens, or angels (also known in the vogue-cabulary as “cunts”). This physical language remixes influences as varied as Egyptian hieroglyphics, mime, martial arts, ballet, and break dancing into wild moves–like the death drop, the duckwalk, and the hairpin (an acrobatic backbend in which a dancer’s butt touches his head). Particularly stunt-happy voguers are called “devils.”
Nauczyciel wasn’t a homegrown voguer, but he developed an understandable fascination with it while exploring the outskirts of Paris, and started going to the Kiki House of LaBanji (voguing performances take place in “houses”). He wasn’t interested in keeping an anthropologist’s distance from his subjects, instead developing close personal relationships with them. To accompany his photo series, he’s staging a series of choreographed performances at the gallery with a number of the Baltimore dancers pictured, as well as showing an original film of the dancers.
As to why he’s called the series The Fire Flies: The title alludes to James Baldwin’s conception of African American sensuality in The Fire Next Time–and Nauczyciel sees these dancers as flickering sparks of light in the darkness of their surroundings, duckwalking and dipping their way through struggle.
The Fire Flies is on view at Julie Meneret Contemporary Art from April 2 to May 18.