Dustin Thierry’s new exhibition of the Ballroom scene celebrates the liberatory power of pride, style, and resistance of Black queer culture.
“O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E: Opulence! You own everything. Everything is yours,”Junior LaBeija, member of the House of LaBeija, declares with a heady mix of authority and aplomb, delivering one of the most iconic lines in Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingstone’s landmark 1991 film documenting the New York City Ballroom scene. His words evoke the spirit of the culture — one that first took root in Black American culture after the Civil War, when William Dorsey Swann, known to his friends as “the Queen” began organizing drag balls — and has since gone on to become a global phenomenon celebrating Black queer pride, resistance, and style.
Opulence is not a luxury; it’s a necessity in a world that systematically denies Black LGBTQ people their universal human rights. It is a state of mind born of desire and dreams, an inspiration to folks determined to make a dollar out of fifteen cents; Opulence is the spirit of Ballroom, a place where Black queer youth gather to celebrate themselves, a space for love and healing in a world that would sooner see them dead. To do anything less would be a denial of the grandeur that lies within.
The beauty of the Ballroom, of the majestic people who walk its hallowed floors, is the subject of self-taught photographer Dustin Thierry’s new exhibition Opulence. His luxurious portraits occupy the extraordinary place where fashion and documentary photography intersect, creating a space for contemplation, veneration, and exaltation of Black queer identity.
A Path to Liberation and Healing
Hailing from Curaçao, Thierry moved to the Netherlands on his own at the age of 14. Despite the nation enjoying a reputation as a liberal hub, Thierry encountered racism here. After being denied opportunities, he decided to pursue his own path, creating work that offered both liberation and healing after his brother, an aspiring photographer and polysexual youth struggling with the heavy shadow of homophobia in Curaçao, took his own life in 2016.
Three years earlier, Thierry had begun to plant the seeds that would flower and bloom into this extraordinary series of photographs. epliqueQhile working as the resident event photographer for BIRD Rotterdam nightclub, Thierry was introduced to Amber Vineyard, mother of ‘The House of Vineyard,” who was organizing her first ball. From this encounter, Opulence was born, with Thierry recognizing that his work could speak directly with the African diaspora unencumbered by the relentless glare of the white gaze.
Using his work as a vehicle for healing and a means to pave a path for others to enter the art world, Thierry’s work is guided by a sense of power and purpose: to serve, support, and uplift the collective. Opulence evokes the words of Pepper LaBeija, who tells it like it is in Paris Is Burning: “When it comes to the minorities; especially Black — we as a people, for the past 400 years — is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. We have had everything taken away from us, and yet we have all learned how to survive.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Dustin Thierry: Opulence
On view through April 4, 2021
Van Abbe Museum, Bilderdijklaan 10, 5611 NH Eindhoven, Netherlands