Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.
– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
On May 6, 2019 Billy Porter entered a tent over the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrapped from head to toe in gold and slowly carried on a litter by six shirtless men in golden trousers and boots.1 As reporters and photographers shouted his name asking him to pose for the camera, he remained sphinx like, reclining, and refusing to rush his entrance—after all, he was dressed as an Egyptian god.
His attendants performed a slow series of gestures, tilting their heads back as through worshipping the sun and moving their arms “robot” style into poses resembling ancient Egyptian paintings as one called the count—part drill sergeant, part dance captain. Only then was the litter lowered and Porter descended slowly from his throne. He took his time unfurling his golden wings to reveal a gold spangled bodysuit. Then he floated up the stairs. Porter’s performance, a collaboration with stylist Sam Ratelle, was the performer/singer/actor’s debut at the Met Gala, which in 2019 was celebrating the opening of the Costume Institute exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion. Porter was the most multivalent and exuberant embodiment of camp on the pink carpet, exposing the complexities and politics of camp that were absent in the exhibition.
Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964) served as a spine for the Met’s exhibition, and appeared to be a text consulted by many of the Gala’s guests and their stylists.2 While Sontag acknowledges that camp is a queer aesthetic, she notably claims that it is not political: “it goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.”3 What is neglected by Sontag is the fact that camp is an aesthetic strategy to survive marginalization, as Richard Dyer noted: “camp kept, and keeps, a lot of gay men going.”4 While the exhibition highlighted some queer histories, within its Plexiglas vitrines, the Met’s institutional presentation of camp was markedly white and largely de-politicized.5 Figures noted by Dyer, such as Sylvester and Little Richard, were absent from the exhibition, as were the queer communities of color represented in Pose, the TV show Porter helms.6 This exclusion was eloquently underlined through text printed on the back of Lena Waithe’s Kerby Jean-Raymond zoot suit: “Black Drag Queens Inventend [sic] Camp.” Designers of color occupied marginal positions in the exhibition (quite literally) and, as Dyer warns, women were largely objectified rather than celebrated as practitioners of camp culture.7
Porter’s performance offered camp as a more radical strategy. He told Vogue that Ryan Murphy had suggested he dress in all of the looks Diana Ross wears as a fashion model in an iconic montage scene in the film Mahogany.8 Murphy was suggesting a traditional drag performance, but the actor in collaboration with Ratelle, chose a more complex mode of genderfuck or gender fluid fashion for the red carpet.9 As Ratelle said, he’s not a drag queen, “he is himself wearing whatever he wants…he’s a man in a dress.”10
Rather than Diana Ross drag, Porter and Ratelle honed in on Ross’s Egyptian look in the montage, commissioning The Blonds (designer Phillipe Blond and Creative Director David Blond) to create a look fit for an Egyptian god.11 Ratelle described the Blonds as, “the new Bob Mackie,” and noted the significance of working with the pair of emerging designers who are gay and Latinx.12 The spangled bodysuit and winged cape they created were androgynous.13 The design referenced Mahogany loosely and twentieth century citations of Ancient Egypt in visual culture. For instance, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s Ethiopia (1921) and Aaron Douglas’s Building More Stately Mansions (1944) drew on Ancient Egypt as artistic heritage for modern Black artists at a time when white Art Deco designers were enraptured by Egyptomania.
Porter’s golden wings were clearly inspired by the ones worn by Elizabeth Taylor as the title character in Cleopatra (1963). His cool reserve in the face of shouting photographers and onlookers mirrors Taylor’s performance when she slowly enters Rome on a giant sphinx float pulled by an army of men and surrounded by cheering Romans. Both performers completely upend the traditional power dynamics of the spaces they enter by embracing the notion of camp as excess and as a performance of self.
But the presence of Porter, a Black gay man costumed as an Egyptian god inside the Temple of Dendur at the Met goes further, constructing Ancient Egypt as a space of queer Black liberation.14 It’s not just the fabulousness of Diana Ross in a fashion montage, or the excessive trappings of Elizabeth Taylor in a sword and sandals epic, but Ancient Egypt itself that is camp: the elaborate rituals for the dead, being buried with your possessions and pets, all of those gold and turquoise accessories! The camping of Ancient Egypt, which represents one of the most significant parts of the Met’s collection, is a way of taking the air out of the Museum’s sails. It takes the serious study and categorization of an ancient civilization that is positioned literally as a corner stone of the Museum’s documentation of the history of Western Civilization and queers it by reminding viewers that Ancient Egypt is neither white nor straight. Porter plays up the artifice and exposes the contradictions within the constructions of masculinity, power, and race at the center of the project of the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation of art history. Porter’s entrance isn’t just campy; it demystifies, de-mythifies, and upends the structure of the Museum itself. Significantly he does so with fashion and performance—practices that are marginalized within the institution itself. His performance enacts what the Met’s exhibition on camp refused to do: a powerful decentering of straight white masculinity and a re-visioning of history as Black and queer. Porter has slayed on his first outing to the Met Gala.
This is one of four essays from the twelfth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
b.O.s. 12.1 / Paint It Black / Elliott H. Powell
b.O.s. 12.3 / this is an artwork/this is for you/you are a community/you are my material/this is a prison/leave when you want / Tina Post
b.O.s. 12.4 / All Colored Cast / Shana L. Redmond
Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.
Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.
- Creative team for Porter’s performance and look: Creative Direction & Styling: Sam Ratelle for RRR Creative Agency; Styling Assistant: Ashley Marie; Make-up: La Sonya Gunter (provided by Pat McGrath); Custom Look: The Blonds; Custom Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti; Jewelry: Oscar Heyman, Andreoli Fine Jewelry, John Hardy, MORDEKAI By Ken Borochov; Egyptian Litter & Carrier Designs: Nicolas Putvinski; Carrier Make-Up: Goran, Ashley Victoria; Billy Porter’s Broadway Carriers: Julius Rubio, Kellen Stancil, Josh Drake, Anton Lapidus, Donald Jones Jr., Taurean Everett. Michael Love Michael, “Billy Porter and Stylist Sam Ratelle on THAT Met Gala Entrance,” PaperMag.com (May 7, 2019) https://www.papermag.com/billy-porter-sam-ratelle-met-gala-2636514520.html?rebelltitem=4#rebelltitem4.
- No specific direction is given to guests of the Gala on their dress by either the event’s Chairwoman Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine or the Met, though it is well known that Wintour and Vogue exert considerable control over the guest list and the pairing of designers and celebrities who will wear their garments. The Gala is a much a PR event for fashion brands as it is a fund raiser. See Vanessa Friedman, “It’s Called the Met Gala, but It’s Definitely Anna Wintour’s Party,” New York Times (May 2, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/style/its-called-the-met-gala-but-its-definitely-anna-wintours-party.html?searchResultPosition=2. Sam Ratelle in discussion with the author, May 29, 2020.
- Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” The Partisan Review 31: 4 (Fall 1964) 529; 517.
- Richard Dyer, “It’s Being So Camp as Keeps Us Going,” in The Culture of Queers (London: Taylor and Francis, 2005 orig. 2002) 49.
- I have written about the apolitical whiteness of the exhibition in, “The Perils and Pleasures of Institutionalizing “Camp” at The Met,” BmoreArt.com (May 29, 2019) https://bmoreart.com/2019/05/the-perils-and-pleasures-of-institutionalizing-camp-at-the-met.html.
- A video of Malcolm McLaren’s music video for “Deep in Vogue” (1989) which features Willi Ninja, Aldonna Xtravaganza, and Adrian Xtravaganza voguing was the only nod to this culture. Dyer, “It’s Being So Camp as Keeps Us Going,” 51.
- Dyer notes that, “the camp sensibility is very much a product of our oppression. And, inevitably it is scarred by that oppression.” Dyer, “It’s Being So Camp as Keeps Us Going,” 59.
- Murphy is the one of the producers of the show Porter stars in Pose and Porter was seated at his table for the gala.
- In 2019 Porter wore a custom tuxedo gown by Christian Siriano to the Oscars and a vibrant mustard dress by Calvin Klein with a matching Dolce and Gabbana blazer to an AFI luncheon, both with his mustache and goatee. Ratelle describes himself as more of a director than a stylist, particularly with Porter’s appearance at the Met Gala. Sam Ratelle in discussion with the author, May 29, 2020.
- Sam Ratelle in discussion with the author, May 29, 2020.
- Ratelle told me that Egyptian imagery has appealed to him since he was a child. Raised in Branhamism (which he has referred to as a cult) and other Christian churches he explained that that he didn’t have access to much culture outside of the bible, so the ancient Egyptians loomed large. While they were the villains in the bible, the glamorous descriptions of their debauchery were attractive to Ratelle in his formative years, these were “all the things that I wanted to do.” Porter was also raised in a religious Christian household centered on the church, so perhaps there was some kinship here. Sam Ratelle in discussion with the author, May 29, 2020. Ruth La Ferla, “Billy Porter’s Stylist Flips Fashion on Its Head,” New York Times (February 7, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/style/billy-porters-stylist-flips-fashion-on-its-head.html.
- Ratelle himself immigrated to the US from Tegucigalpa, Honduras when he was 8. Sam Ratelle in discussion with the author, May 29, 2020. Mackie, who famously designed costumes for performers such as Cher and Carol Burnett had designs featured in the exhibition.
- With its stylized beaded patterning—like an Érte drawing come to life— the look was tinged with shades of Busby Berkley and Art Deco, as was his extravagant performance.
- The Temple, built around the 15th century BC in Nubia, is one of the most iconic spaces in the museum and was a site of Cher’s performance for the Camp gala. In 1965 the temple was given to the US by Egypt in recognition of their aid in the campaign to document and save monuments and archeological sites that were displaced by the building of the Aswan High Dam (begun in 1965) and the formation of Lake Nasser (1970). For more see “The Temple of Dendur: Celebrating 50 Years at The Met,” metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017 https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/egyptian-art/temple-of-dendur-50.