Over the past decade, queer art has gone through a renaissance due to the mainstream popularization of drag, bringing to the fore a new generation of drag artists. This surge in the popularity of drag can largely be attributed to the massive success of the American reality show Rupaul’s Drag Race which premiered in 2009 and continues to attract high ratings. Its success and longevity has transformed the artform of drag, one that was primarily relegated to niche queer nightlife spaces, by injecting in it a massive dose of talent through a new generation of drag artists and their supporters.
Drag artists treat their bodies as their canvas—using makeup, hair styling, fashion styling and costume design as their tools—becoming fountains of creativity to develop their final product. This can take the form of photographs, videos, music or live performances. With the newfound mainstream success of drag and the support that comes with it, many drag artists have been able to develop distinct artistic processes and a sophisticated and unique visual aesthetic and identity.
The Arseniek, a French drag artist, incorporates both traditionally male and female attributes to create an ethereal aesthetic and persona where assigning a definitive gender is often impossible. A hairstylist by trade, his exceptional command over the form is particularly highlighted in this image, inspired by the fairy-tale Rapunzel and Sofia Coppola's historical drama Marie Antoinette (2006). The success of such artists has been a long time coming. They traditionally have inspired makeup artists, designers and mainstream pop culture, such as originating the technique of contouring widely used in makeup, often without themselves benefitting significantly.
Sasha Velour, an American drag artist who emerged as one of the biggest names in drag after winning a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has developed an innovative and highly technical style of live performances. She combines couture level costumes, digital special effects and lighting to create a unique immersive experience. Touring solo internationally, she has enjoyed a high level of success while emphasising a Kahloesque beauty. She often paints on a unibrow and chooses to go bald in place of wearing a wig, a practice she initially adopted to support her mother through her experience with cancer. The style of drag Arseniek and Velour represent is an alternative one that has recently emerged to challenge more traditional drag, which adheres to strict gender boundaries; they are not restricted by the gender-binary or accepted ideals of beauty. The purpose of drag is often to parody either gender, but this style of alternative drag serves to parody gender itself, intentionally breaking its boundaries or treating it as entirely irrelevant, a different political statement.
Hungry, a German drag and makeup artist, is an example of this. They go beyond drag’s obsession with the exaggeration of facial features and gender. Instead, they distort them to a point of abstraction where thoughts about gender are merely a distraction. Their unique aesthetic and popularity has brought them collaborations with major fashion houses and makeup brands such as Dior, indicative of drag being embraced by the mainstream. Going beyond beauty and fashion, even companies outside of these industries have started working with drag artists, including hard-to-shake financial institutions for their ad campaigns. No longer hidden away in bars and nightclubs, drag has truly arrived, and the world is knocking.
By Shyenne Pepper