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It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust after walking into Kia LaBeija’s solo exhibition at Royale Projects, Fear is Only a Fraction of Love. Part of this is due to the almost completely monochromatic quality of the images on view, as well as the glass each photograph is framed under, which reflects back at you, like a disorienting mirror. After grasping onto an entry point—either the bright red shock of lips, or the whites of eyes—self-portraits of LaBeija begin to emerge, her body and hair painted the same dark blue-green as the photos’ background. Sprinkled with what seems like glitter, her nude body sparkles like a disco ball or a cloudless night sky.
LeBeija is a 28 year old, HIV+, queer woman of color, and a fixture on the New York ballroom scene as a member of the House of LaBeija, which was featured in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Although that film introduced a mainstream audience to the underground world of vogueing, as practiced by gay African-American and Latino men, the intersectional worlds that LaBeija inhabits are still largely overlooked. The five images that make up Fear highlight this invisibility, as she strikes distinct poses in each, her camouflaged body blending into the background. In Kia Featuring the Moon (2018), she crosses her arms across her body, fingers dexterously splayed, a glowing orb perched between her left ring finger and pinky. In Untitled #3 (2018), the sinuous curve of her back flows up to her arms and hands which frame her face in a manner reminiscent of old Hollywood elegance. Although each is compelling on their own, taken as a whole, the five photos seem more like a sketch for a larger body of work. Barely able to hold the large room they’re in, they beg for a more intimate setting. Paradoxically, these images also capture the potential of the nightlife to allow for reinvention and empowerment, glamour and mystery.
The most telling work is Untitled #5 (2018) where LaBeija is pictured holding a make-up mirror, her gaze directed out at the viewer. Her hands are jarringly unpainted, their warm brown tone contrasting with the overwhelming blue-green depth. Delicately clutching the mirror, her pinky held aloft, LaBeija comes across as assuredly in control of her image construction. For bodies that are so often limited to one defining characteristic—queer, of color, HIV+—LaBeija sees a spectrum of intersecting possibilities.
Kia LaBeija: Fear is Only a Fraction of Love runs April 8–June 24, 2018 at Royale Projects (432 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA 90013).