Press release | 3 September 2019
Amsterdam-based photographer Dustin Thierry (Willemstad, Curaçao, 1985) began documenting the Dutch Ballroom scene in 2013. This underground phenomenon originated in 19th-century America, where the LGBTQ community gathered for drag masquerade balls where their identity could freely be expressed. Racism experienced by black participants led to the initiation of balls for the black queer community specifically in the 1970s. A contemporary manifestation of the Ballroom scene is rapidly expanding on a global scale, with its epicentres in New York and Paris. Following his ongoing series on ballrooms in the Netherlands, Thierry travelled to Paris, New York, London and Berlin to document the respective local scenes. His work testifies to a vibrant and timely revival of a centuries-old phenomenon, but also points to persistent discrimination and marginalisation of black and queer communities worldwide.
Thierry employs photography to empower, to reveal what is generally invisible, and to voice what is often muted. The balls he photographs are a ‘safe space’ for self-expression, but also a place where fierce competition forces its participants to stand up and defend their identity. Competitors engage in dance-off categories such as ‘voguing’: a highly stylised modern house dance inspired by hieroglyphs and modelling poses. The dance is said to have been invented by the inmates of Rikers Island, who were copying the poses struck by models in Vogue magazine in rapid succession. Others say it originated in Ballroom culture of Harlem and downtown Manhattan in the early 1960s. The dance-style became popularised by pop-artists such as Janet Jackson and Madonna in her video clip for Vogue (1990), and by the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which chronicled the African-American, Latinx, gay, and transgender communities of the New York City ball culture.
Thirty years later Thierry shows that the spirit of resistance, manifested in uncompromised self-expression, remains vibrant and resilient. The so-called ‘house structure’ (a social system of self-chosen families that compete with each other during Balls) that was implemented in the 1970s, has since generated new generations of ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ around which the scene gravitates. The houses function to prepare contestants for the Ball while constituting informal support structures for those facing discrimination or hostility in daily life. Thierry created powerful portraits of various members of the Dutch House of Vineyard, the Parisian House of LaDurée and the Parisian chapters of the American houses of Mizrahi, Revlon, and Ebony that followed in the wake of the very first House of Labeija.
Thierry is a self-taught photographer and started employing photography as a means of empowerment after moving to the Netherlands from the Caribbean island of Curaçao as a teenager. Becoming increasingly exposed to racial issues, he sought a way to channel and convey his own awareness to others. A defining event in his personal life – which proved transformative for his career – was his stepbrother’s suicide: a consequence of ongoing mental struggles related to his sexuality and the stigmatisation he suffered in Curaçao. Thierry describes his series as “an ode to all people who are still not free to live and express their sexuality”.
Dustin Thierry (Willemstad, Curaçao, 1985) moved from Curaçao to the Netherlands at the age of 14. As a self-taught photographer, he started working as an event photographer for club BIRD in Rotterdam, where he first started documenting the Dutch ballroom scene in 2013. Since then his career has taken flight. This year, Thierry's work was part of group exhibitions such as Labs New Artists III at Red Hook Labs, New York and the 2019 Aperture Summer Open: Delirious Cities in New York. Opulence was published this year in The New York Times, Financial Times and Vice. Dustin Thierry was also selected by the British Journal of Photography as One to Watch 2019 and Foam Talent 2020. Foam presents its first museum solo exhibition. Thierry lives and works in Amsterdam.
Foam 3h: Dustin Thierry - Opulence is on show from 18 October 2019 until 8 December 2019. Foam is open daily from 10.00 until 18.00, Thu/Fri from 10.00 until 21.00 hrs.
This exhibition is made possible with support of the Van Bijlevelt Foundation and Kleurgamma Fine-Art Photolab.
Foam thanks the Van Abbemuseum for their collaboration.
Foam is supported by the BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Foam Members, City of Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.
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