Hayward Gallery explores the changing face of drag in new show

Featuring self-portraits and selfies by artists from within the drag scene dating from the 1960s up until now, the exhibition aims to show the many different forms that drag can take

Drag has existed in one form or another since as early as the 1800s, when pantomime dames became a common feature of theatres in Europe and vaudeville shows first became popular in the US.

It is only over the last few decades however, that drag has entered the mainstream, with documentaries like Paris is Burning helping to break down the taboo surrounding it, and TV show Ru Paul’s Drag Race recently celebrating its 10th birthday.

Luciano Castelli, His Majesty the Queen, 1973. Courtesy Christophe Gaillard, Paris

Hayward Gallery is delving into the history of the drag scene with its latest exhibition, which features photography and performance pieces spanning from the 1960s right up to the present day. For the gallery’s senior curator Vincent Honoré, now definitely felt like the right time to look at how the scene has evolved over the years.

“In the light of current societal debates on identities, and with its current popularity in mainstream culture, drag has become crucial for a younger generation of artists who re-appropriate and re-inform drag to ​take on​ political dimensions,” he says.

Samuel Fosso Self-Portrait, 2008. Photograph: Private Jean Marc Patras, Paris
Michel Journiac, 24 Heures dans la vie d’une femme / Phantasmes La Maternite, 1974. Courtesy Christophe Gaillard, Paris

The show features drag queens, drag kings and bio drags from a range of different backgrounds and generations, with its main focus being self-portraiture and – of course – the selfie. “It was important to have the artists speak for themselves, and to avoid documentation that could imply some sort of voyeurism,” says Honoré. “By solely focusing on self-portraiture the exhibition also touches upon the culture of the selfie, addressing … the artists as both objects and subjects.”

The works on display address issues ranging from feminism and post-colonial theory to the AIDS crisis. A self-portrait by Hunter Reynolds, who has been using photography and performance to convey his experience as an HIV-positive gay man since the 80s, shows him as his alter-ego Patina du Prey and was used by the group ACT UP as one of the main images in their campaign against the AIDS epidemic.

Hunter Reynolds, Shhh (from Patina du Prey Drag Pose Series), 1990/2012. Photo credit: Michael Wakefeld. Courtesy of the artist, P.P.O.W and Hales Gallery

Another highlight is Ulay’s ‘auto-portraits’ from the 70s. Created using Polaroid film, in S’he Ulay is both a man and a woman, while in Renais Sense he shows the process of transforming from one identity to another.

Honoré hopes that visitors will leave the show with more of an insight into the many different forms that drag can take. “The exhibition demonstrates that drag is not about emulating a woman or a man, [it] allows for a perpetual transition, a permanent creation and a constant transformation of oneself,” he says. “Drag kings, drag queens and bio drags not only offer a sharp and humorous parody of genders, they also directly question the notion of originality, validity and the essence of social constructions.”

Ulay, Renais sense (White Mask), 1974/2014. Private collection, London

DRAG​: Self-portraits and Body Politics is on display at Hayward Gallery from August 22 – October 14​ 2018. More info here