Saturday, December 23, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #23: Sasha Steinberg

Sasha Steinberg, during his time at CCS, was one of the most ambitious, talented and cerebral of its students. His Stonewall series, taking on the famous riot that launched the gay rights movement in the USA from a variety of different points of view. During his time at CCS, he also began experimenting with drag performance as Sasha Velour. An early showcase came at the Ignatz awards at SPX, when she presented an award, along with her partner Johnny. (Steinberg tends to flip between pronouns, and for the purposes of the article, I will refer to Steinberg as she when in the Velour persona and he otherwise). Of course, Sasha Velour has become a worldwide star thanks to her winning Season 9 of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race. She won it using the same persona she presents as a cartoonist: a playful intellectual whose work is deeply informed by and a tribute to a number of historical influences.

Even before her success on the show, Velour was self-publishing a full-color, the first issue of which was titled Vym, but has since been simply retitled Velour. The third issue is fairly light on comics and heavy on both photography and especially collage. It’s also light on the thoughtful, philosophical essays from the first issue, or at least, they manifested in the form of interviews and photo commentary. The emphasis on both collage and performance reminds me of the sort of the thing that was produced in Weimar Germany, also harkening back to collage artists like Hannah Hoch.

The result is a colorful, beautiful comic that emphasizes the sense of community and kindness in drag culture rather than the shade that’s thrown on TV. Indeed, the theme of the issue was “Sisters”. There was a photo/collage piece where a pair of drag queens used similar materials to decorate photos of the other, and this turned out to be the most striking photo essay in the magazine. A tight-knit Brooklyn drag group (The House of Aja) receives a similar kind of photo-collage treatment, with each member getting a page of their own glory. Velour’s conception of drag has always emphasized inclusivity, especially with regard to people of size, people of color, people of different faiths and trans women, and the “That’s My Sister” article speaks to the incredibly wide array of manifestations of what drag means to people. (I thought Patti Spliff was an especially clever persona.)

Circling back to CCS contributors, Jose-Luis Olivares contributed drawings of five of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, along with commentary. This is a group that Olivares is listed as a “novice” of, and Olivares’ painterly qualities are on full display. April Malig collaborated with Untitled Queen on what could have been a fantastic risographed zine as well as an article in this magazine. Titled “the spectacularly sad surreptitious spinster snake sister survival spellbook”, it’s a clever, funny and deeply emotional blueprint for establishing and nourishing friendships with one’s sisters. Their mutual Filipino background contributed to the dessert portion of the piece, a layered concoction called Halo-Halo.

Velour herself contributed a collage of photos of her fellow stars from Drag Race, putting them in fantastical settings befitting their personae. Velour was the subject (along with her Drag Race collaborator, Shea Coulee’) of a photo essay emphasizing their “Naughty Nightie” piece on the show and taking it to another level. Finally, in a comic by Laurel Lynn Leake titled “Afters”, she depicts some moments of rest after a drag show, with each of the performers doing their own post-mortem. When Yessica Mente wonders why one of her tributes went down so poorly, her friends note that her tribute to an African-American artist (recently departed), including use of a racial slur. Yessica, not being African-American, is unsure and defensive about this, and tensions rise.

Leake takes a long look at the kind of simmering tensions that can arise and nods toward the fact that it was women of color (and trans women of color of that) who were the key figures of Stonewall. Leake is another artist who is sensitive and aware of the complexities that surround drag while being enormously sympathetic toward them. The end, which includes apologies but also a sense of realizing that certain issues couldn’t be resolved instantly, speaks to the sisterhood that’s the theme of the issue and the story itself. It speaks to drag’s power and possibilities while gently examining the human imperfections that are a part of it, so that it can be celebrated authentically.

No comments:

Post a Comment