In the early 1980s, Andy Warhol posed in drag for a series of Polaroid portraits. Wearing heavy white makeup in works like “Self-Portrait in Drag” (1981), he exudes a ghoulish glamour. The platinum blonde hair, crisp white shirt, and pale-as-a-vampire face pack so much white into the image, it gives Robert Ryman a run for his money.
The use of white in these Polaroids, and all the twisted layers of meaning that go with it, captured the imagination of artist Raja Feather Kelly, spurring him to create performance art in which he impersonates Warhol in this bleached-out drag. Covering his face with white makeup and donning a blonde wig, Kelly turns the Warhol Polaroids into living art. For “Andy Warhol’s DRELLA (I Love You Faye Driscoll),” which he calls a “movement-based drag essay” and a “vogue ballet,” Kelly performed a series of playful dance sequences and improvised comedy breaks with the dancers (also in whiteface) in his company, The Feath3r Theory, at the Invisible Dog Art Center.
Kelly plays the titular character, Drella, a combination of “Cinderella” and “Dracula” that was Andy Warhol’s nickname at the factory. Cinderella hinted at Warhol’s effeminate presence and controlling “princess” personality; Dracula referenced his fascination with death, the murder attempt he survived, and his increasingly pale skin as he aged. Warhol’s pale skin got so much attention that when he visited London in 1971, Geoffrey Matthews of the Evening News described him as “a corpse which has somehow raised itself up off of a cold stone slab and walked out of the mortuary.” Although the Drella name is not officially associated with Warhol’s 1981 Polaroids, it’s hard not to see the pale drag avatar as a visualization of this wordplay, as well a self-conscious joke about the artist’s own sickly pale face.
Kelly’s “DRELLA” is comprised of several dance numbers interspersed with improvised short comedy monologues and jokes by Drella. The dances are strung together with transitions that are at times charmingly awkward. The progression is less about an unfolding narrative and more about exploring different physical poses, movements, and the images they create. For example, one segment involved the dancers crawling around on the floor; another focused on twirling, yet another on the catwalk. It’s hard to categorize the work stylistically because it jumbles dance styles together, including ballet, breaking, modern, postmodern, and voguing, to name a few. The eclectic mash-up created a playful, funky energy that captivated the audience at the Invisible Dog because they couldn’t predict what was next. Throughout the performance, a screen projection in the background depicted the application of whiteface to keep that motif in the minds of viewers.
Drella was the ringleader, and the other dancers were her followers; they often imitated her style and mimicked her movements. She was like an alpha girl they all wanted to be yet also loathed. In the moment below, the dancers dramatically rise to their feet and reach for the sky after Drella passes by. They would call out her name, Drella, with the cadence of mixed feelings: begging for approval but also resentful of the power she holds over them.
As Raja Feather Kelly explained to Hyperallergic, “It’s like me mocking you mocking me … It’s like when you put a mirror in front of a mirror and and see a thousand things.” The piece captures how people at the factory mocked Warhol by calling him Drella, and how he mocked them back by embracing the nickname and eventually inventing a drag look to resemble it. And because everyone eventually copies Warhol, Kelly thought, why not have the followers at the factory, represented by the other dancers, imitate the Drella look that grew out of the mocking?
That’s all well and good, but is there a deeper message behind resurrecting Drella and employing whiteface in the proces?
In a revealing joke that Drella cracked to the audience during the show, she jested that “Beyoncé is a lot like my father … a total letdown.” Beyoncé has allowed her skin to be digitally lightened for promotional images, much to the bemusement of tabloids and the befuddlement and frustration of black intellectuals and artists. It’s the latest example in a long history of our culture prizing black women as beautiful only to the extent that they can morph into and pass as white. So, by putting on whiteface as Drella, Kelly makes a comedic parody out of the pressure black women face to pale up.
The performance also connects to the notorious story of Warhol discriminating against a black drag queen. In 1967, the artist sat on a panel for the Miss All-American Beauty Pageant Drag contest, at which the judges scored the legendary veteran black queen Crystal LaBeija below a younger, inexperienced white queen named Rachel Harlow. LaBeija flew into a legendary rage when the verdict was announced; she knew she’d lost because the judges didn’t think she looked white enough. “It was our goal to look like white women,” LaBeija explained in describing the look it took to win competitions. “They used to tell me, ‘You have negroid features,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s all right, I have white eyes.’ That’s how it was back then.” Drag historians have not uncovered any documentation revealing Warhol’s personal thoughts on the outcome.
LaBeija’s rage over the verdict of the panel that included Warhol actually connects with the gay black dance innovation known as voguing. In response to her defeat, LaBeija decided to start the first black drag ball in Harlem. It marked the first time that black queens competed only with each other and could reject the pressure to look white. And, as the story famously goes, it was at a subsequent exclusive gathering of black queens that Paris Dupree famously challenged the others to outdo her in imitating poses from her copy of Vogue magazine. Striking a pose and voguing would soon go viral in the gay black dance scene, and eventually go mainstream. None of that would have been possible without Crystal LaBeija’s courage. Raja Feather Kelly’s voguing of Drella distills this history into a potent force of performance art that critiques and undermines what Warhol’s — and, by extension, our society’s — preference for white meant yesterday and continues to mean today.
Choreographer Faye Driscoll, whom Kelly admires artistically and acknowledges in the show’s title, once pondered in an interview, “How could we become third things? A gender that we’ve never imagined, that we’ve never heard of? A third kind of creature that’s more than human?” Kelly has responded to this challenge by creating dancing third creatures that are neither black nor white, neither woman nor man, neither drag queens nor gender-normative. With dance styles just as blended as the performers’ identities, this piece gets viewers to marvel at what’s possible beyond binaries even Warhol wasn’t smart enough to subvert.
“Andy Warhol’s DRELLA (I Love You Faye Driscoll)” was performed at the Invisible Dog Art Center on June 5 and June 6, 7:30pm.