The Underside Of Glamour: An Interview Of Kia LaBeija

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text and photographs by Annabel Graham

In her vibrant, dreamlike self-portraits, Kia LaBeija offers us a keyhole through which to peer into some of her most tender and fragile moments—yet she peers right back, engaging with the viewer, watching us watching her. Her gaze is direct and unflinching, often laced with grief, or defiance, or whatever emotion might have been coursing through her body at the particular moment when the shutter clicked—at once reminding us of the ultimate artifice of posed portraiture and stating, simply, "Here I am."

Now twenty-seven years old, Kia LaBeija (née Kia Michelle Benbow) was born HIV-positive to an untested mother, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness when LaBeija was just fourteen. Much of her work explores her own firsthand experiences: reimagining and rejecting rigid cultural stigmas about those living with the virus, laying bare the beauty and pain of existing in—and learning to love—her own body, with all of its complexities. Born and raised in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district, Hell’s Kitchen, LaBeija trained as a professional dancer and soon became involved in the underground subculture of voguing—which is, in her own words, “a style of cathartic movement or dance birthed by black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in New York City.” She worked her way up the ranks, walking and competing in balls, and now serves as the Mother of the House of LaBeija, which was founded in 1977 by ballroom icon Crystal LaBeija.

In all their thrilling, glittery, performative glory—their multilayered explorations of persona and artifice, identity and womanhood and trauma—LaBeija’s self-portraits faintly echo those of Cindy Sherman. Yet while Sherman plays a whole host of different characters in her images, LaBeija plays just one: herself. “Glamour dresses up the oldest wounds,” writes David Velasco, editor-in-chief of Artforum, in the letter that opens his astonishing inaugural issue (the issue is aptly titled "Uses of Power," and features Kia LaBeija alongside the likes of Nan Goldin, Adrian Piper, Johanna Fateman, Sable Elyse Smith and House of Ladosha). The trope of glamour throughout LaBeija’s work pays homage to her roots in voguing, yes; but it does more than that. It expresses, symbolically, just how beautiful an HIV-positive body can be. Above all, glamour represents one facet of who Kia LaBeija is: an actress, a chameleon, a performer, a ballroom queen, a daughter who loved to play dress-up with her mother. An artist. A woman.

I sat down with LaBeija, who is currently in the process of relocating to the west coast, in between her apartment viewings one morning in early January. It was a rare overcast day in Los Angeles, the sky a dull muted gray, and I was nervous about the flat lighting—I’d be shooting some portraits of her after our conversation. Curled up on a velvet couch in the home of her half-brother’s mother’s partner (say that ten times fast), a mug of hot tea warming her slender hands, LaBeija was thoughtful and circumspect as she answered my questions—barefoot and barefaced, her voice resonant and clear. She was kind, open, calm, forthright, remarkably deep—and considerably more down-to-earth than I’d anticipated, especially after watching her vogue fearlessly and persistently through the streets of Bogotà in a baby-blue dip-dyed spandex jumpsuit (in the electrifying music video for Pillar Point’s “Dove”).

ANNABEL GRAHAM: Could you talk a little bit about the dynamic between power and vulnerability in your work?

KIA LABEIJA: It’s just a part of who I am. I think that dynamic is something that happens naturally. It took a long time to share these pieces of me. When I did it, I took one photograph, which was the first photograph, which is in Artforum. I’m in my bedroom in my underwear. I took that one, and then I had these ideas to make a series based off of these moments of my life that felt very private and quiet, because I felt them starting to creep up on me in that way that’s like, “If you don’t start talking about this stuff you’re going to explode.” A lot of these images are my way of exploding a bit.

GRAHAM: How did you originally get into voguing?

LABEIJA: As a dancer, I knew about it—and also just being from New York, I knew a little bit about it. I had seen Paris Is Burning when I was sixteen. It’s an incredible documentary. There are a lot of queer people all over the world that don’t know that that exists. Then they see something like that and they feel like, “Oh wow, I can just be whoever I want to be.” I got into voguing because I met someone who was in the scene. We worked together at Webster Hall in New York. She brought me into a house, which was the first house I was in. Once that house closed, she joined the House of LaBeija. Basically I followed her. I call her my gay mother. She taught me everything I know.

GRAHAM: And now you’re the Mother of the House of LaBeija. How did you become the Mother? In Paris is Burning, they say that the Mother of a house is the person with the most power.

LABEIJA: I mean, for many years I had been kind of mothering the House of LaBeija in a way that was just kind of helping to guide it. I became the Mother this past year, in 2017. That’s when I kind of made it official.

GRAHAM: How, if at all, did growing up with HIV affect the way that you work as an artist and the kinds of images that you make? And conversely, how has your work as an artist, if at all, helped you navigate life as a queer woman of color with the virus?

LABEIJA: The first time I made art around HIV was after my mom died, when I was fourteen. I had this jean jacket, and I painted an AIDS ribbon on it and put her name on it, and I remember I showed it to my dad. It kind of hurt his heart a little bit, it was just kind of hard for him. He didn’t like it. I remember I went into my room and cut it up and threw it out. When you go through traumatic things like that, you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of them. So for him, his way of dealing with it was to not have that be a focal point in our lives. But for me, I needed to explore it, because this was something that I was growing up with, and will continue growing with. Being able to make these images and being able to say, “This is what’s going on with me,” because I don’t tell a lot of people what’s going on with me. That was one of my big things growing up with the virus—feeling really lonely. You don’t see representations of young people living with HIV, or children living with HIV. Women living with HIV. People of color living with HIV. People are so secretive about it, so quiet about it, that it’s hard to find your people. I found my people when I met my gay mother at Webster Hall. She invited me into a world where there were lots of other people around my age that were living with the virus. Being around other people that were living with this thing, but also being so alive, and being able to have this space to perform in any kind of way that I wanted to, just felt like the most amazing thing.

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GRAHAM: Do you also feel that making your work has helped you with the loss of your mother—understanding and moving through that?

LABEIJA: The thing about talking about people, and speaking them into existence, is that they don’t go away. It’s hard because, physically, you can’t experience them. But they live here, [points to her heart] and they live here, [points to the walls] and they live in my photographs, and they live in the hearts of other people that see the work too, because they see the story and they know the story and they feel it. Talking about her, putting her in my work, because she’s so much a part of me, and I am so much her. It’s crazy when you start to get older and you’re so much like your parents. I remember there was this one day that my mom was taking me to the school bus and we were walking, and she said something, and then laughed and went, “Oh my god, I just sounded so much like my mother!” And I laughed at her, and she said, “You just wait, one day you’re going to sound exactly like me. And you’re going to think of this moment, and you’re going to go, ‘Wow, my mom told me this was going to happen.’” And it happened. And it seems like it happens more every day. It’s this beautiful, sad thing, because part of it feels like, wow, I can remember so much, because I’m feeling all of her physicalities and the tone of her voice, or I’m laughing in that similar way, so it’s like this way of her being so close to me—but it’s also kind of sad, because sometimes I’ll do things and think, “Whoa, I’m so much like my mother,” and then I’ll remember, “Oh, she’s not here.” It’s this kind of dueling thing.

GRAHAM: I read in an interview of yours that you’ve learned over the years that you can’t hold on to physical objects. As an artist, and as someone who has experienced loss at a young age, what is your relationship to physical objects and spaces, especially the ones that you photograph?

LABEIJA: We take on all this stuff, we build up all these stories in our heads, and then it becomes all this junk and clutter, and we can’t move forward, or past, or move through anything else because we’re just stuck. So in my head I was just like, “I need to get unstuck. I need to be okay.” I took this drawer that had all of my mother’s things in it and threw all this shit on the ground and was like, “What is all of this stuff?” In the midst of being in that moment, I took a photograph of it. And after I took the photograph, I threw a lot of that stuff out. Because that clears space for new energy, for new things to exist, and prosper, and come into fruition. But space and objects are so important to my work. That stuff really interests me, because those things, those kinds of energies—they stick to walls. They stick to all this stuff that’s not living [knocks on wall] and make it alive.

GRAHAM: Can you talk a bit about your Artforum cover? In your own words, what did you intend with that image?

LABEIJA: I love this question. The piece that’s on the cover of Artforum is part of a series of images. That one is very different than all the others. I’ve never released any of the others, besides those two. There’s the one that’s on the cover, and there’s the one that’s inside, with David’s statement. The one with David’s statement is a little bit more like the rest of the images. It’s hard to talk about it because the image, unlike my other work, isn’t something that’s so specific that it’s like, “This is what it’s about.” It’s kind of an accumulation of a lot of things. The original idea for the image came in that moment where I was feeling unpretty, unloveable, tainted, all these kinds of things, and I wanted to create something where I looked like an X-Men character. It took me a really long time to finally create the picture. I made the image and funny enough, the one that’s on the cover was just a test shot.

GRAHAM: Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.

LABEIJA: It’s kind of about facing your darkness, and being able to be your darkness. It’s also about being powerful in that and being vulnerable and still being sexy in that. It’s really awesome, because my work has been so HIV-centered, and I’m moving past that now. Not to say that I’m not going to still be making work that thematically goes through that, because it’s a part of who I am and that’s a part of my story, but I don’t want that to pigeonhole me. It’s not all of who I am. The fact that this particular image could be on the cover, and it’s not an image that is so HIV-focused, felt so empowering to me.

GRAHAM: Where or what do you draw inspiration from?

LABEIJA: Yeah. Love. I get inspired by all different types of things. When I started really doing photography, I was going off my own thing, but I did have one big influence, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I saw his “Hustlers” series a long time ago in school. What he did was he came out to LA and he photographed different sex workers and he paid them the amount of money that they would get paid from a client. He asked them how they ended up here, and he would take them to a set and photograph them. It was this balance between reality and something that's kind of manicured and posed, but also the beauty and the pain. I wanted to do something that felt similar to that.

The thing about Cindy Sherman is that she plays different people, different types of women, characters. Whereas with me, I play one character, which is myself. I had a period of time where I was like, “Should I stop taking pictures of myself?” It started feeling… not selfish, but narcissistic. That’s not what it is. It’s an exploration of this body, of this person, and saying, “Who am I? Where have I been?” One of my photographs [in the January 2018 issue of Artforum] is called The Greatest Aunts. It was in front of my great-aunt's house. I used to go visit them all the time when I was younger. My great-aunt had a diner where Langston Hughes used to come. That was the first time I started exploring identity in terms of race. My 24 series is more specifically about living with HIV and being a young woman of color, but this was like, “Wow, I’m photographing this space that was important to the women that came before me on my dad’s side. My dad’s black, and my mom is from the Philippines. You’ll probably see that coming up in a lot of my work. I identify as being a black artist, but I’m also a mixed artist too. I’m Filipino, and African-American, and Polynesian, all different types of things.

GRAHAM: What made you decide to move out here (LA) for the second time?

LABEIJA: I went back to New York, because I was like, “There are a lot of things that I haven’t done yet.” And in those five, six, seven years… I fuckin’ did all of the things that I needed to do, and then I was like, “Okay, I can go to LA now and just chill.” It’s a lot about quality of life, and New York is just really hard. It’s intense. I’ve lived there forever. New York is in an interesting space right now. My community, which is like the underground queer POC community in New York, everyone feels it. Everyone is like, “It’s dead out here.” Everyone is moving. People are going to Atlanta, a lot of people are moving to LA. People are going to Canada. There’s a lot of budding artistic energy that’s out here right now. It just feels like the place to be.


Purchase the current issue of Artforum to experience Kia LaBeija's art cover and photographic essay. Text and photographs by Annabel Graham. Follow AUTRE on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


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The World According to KEEFJNAK: An Interview with Alexander Keefe

"Playa Los Yuyos, Lima: una prueba perfecta cont. Ectoplasm enters in the messianic guise of the perfect proof, the ultimate ghost-effect, visual and haptic, a new monstrance at the very edges of the sensorium and its modern prostheses―it exceeds photography (it cannot be properly photographed) it exceeds touch (it can be touched but only with grave danger) — it can barely be seen — emergent like a spider’s web cocooning the medium in a sticky veil, a prophylactic balm to salve the wounds of materialism, Casaubon’s key to all mythologies."

You could say that, unbeknownst to us, some sort of kismetic spirt is colluding with our lives, telling us when to go when we don't exactly know the direction or telling us what to say when the words aren't quite there. You could also say that a certain sense of wanderlust is innate and inexorable–the eternal wondering about magical, faraway places that seem entirely painted by daydreams and travel writers before us. And when you combine these two forces, one more corporeal and the other a tad more phantasmagorical–two forces conceivably as tightly wound as the double helix of our genetic code–it is a catalyst for something else altogether. Tarrah Krajnak, a documentary photographer who was born in Peru in 1979 in an orphanage run by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and grew up in Ohio, and Alexander Keefe, an ex-professor who studied Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard Universities, and a freelance writer for publications such as Artforum and Bidoun magazine, crossed paths in Burlington, Vermont and the rest, as they say, was history. Their online travel diary, called Keefjnak–an amalgam of their surnames–is a collaborative effort to document the world around them on their journey in the great tradition of travel documentation.  A great travel writer such as Ernest Hemingway and any scholar of his would admit that his fantastical stories of seafaring adventures and bullfighting would not hold the same weight without his extensive real life adventures. On Keefjnak, Tarrah Krajnak's somber, yet liberating photographs of a dream-like South America are supplanted with Alexander Keefe's brilliant, poetic text and historical minutia to paint a portrait of the same kind seething wanderlust that all great adventurers share in order to remind us that life is happening to us whether we like it or not. 

Barranco, Lima: the perfect proof cont. And so there is always an anxiety about the nature of their evidentiary claims, the proofs offered by photography and recorded sound in the late 19th and early 20th centuries required not just display but performance, hypnosis, and scripting… argument to fend off the lurking potential for disbelief and “ridicule.”

What is the Keefjnak project? Keefjnak is the project that Tarrah and I started as a daily photo/text blog... kind of a shared project while we were traveling around the world for six months working on other stuff. We made a portmanteau of our two last names and thought it sounded cool. We also liked that it was the only Keefjnak on the internet: a tabula rasa to do with whatever we wanted. We weren't really sure what we wanted to do with it, so that was appropriate. We just knew we didn't want to do a typical travel blog...

How did you two meet? We met when our paths crossed in Burlington, Vermont. Neither of us is from there, but Tarrah was living and teaching there at UVM for five years. I spent a couple years there as a kind of break from life in New Delhi, India, where I'd been living and working for several years previously. We hit it off.

Where did your journey start from? It started when we left Omaha where we were staying for a few months while Tarrah did a residency at the Bemis Center.

“Like the radio, it picks up voices from beyond the vibrations of the human senses but unlike the radio, the broadcast comes from a world which is tuned to rarer vibrations than our own, stepped down, or transformed, to us through ether by the agency of this ectoplasmic substance.

You mentioned that you post your photos and Alex posts his writing without consultation, is it safe to say that your photos and his text are a representation of how a visited place affected you both? Actually there is some consultation... But it is pretty low-key and usually takes the form of a quick editorial suggestion. Sometimes I'll show her a text that I'm considering and say "should I cut that part out?" She almost always says "yes" to that question for some reason... Ha! But I like it. I think of the texts for Keefjnak as the product of a kind of reductive rather than additive process. As for the photos, if she's stuck on deciding between a couple of them, she asks which I think is better for the blog. As for the question of representation, I don't know if that is really what the text and photos are doing. The photos are taken onsite in the various places we go so at least on some level they have to be tied to place. But I think that in the same way that my texts and Tarrah's photos sometimes converge and seem to speak directly to each other, and sometimes diverge and seem to operate independently, that our trip and itinerary works the same way. That is to say, sometimes our location and trip enter into dialogue with the texts and photo in a direct or explicit way, other times not at all. We always wanted the Keefjnak project to be not-obvious and kind of dry, stingy and austere, even cold. We don't want the text, photo and trip to be engaged in some big long group-hug and we don't want people viewing/reading the blog to feel that way either!

Any harrowing stories thus far from your travels or a experience that stands out the most? Tarrah got food-poisoning from a salad in Wisconsin and then ended up getting an upgrade on a flight from Chicago to Mexico City to first class so she could be closer to the bathroom and puke in luxurious comfort while I sat alone in the back of the plane wondering what was going on. At one point in my ambien-fogged semi-sleep I heard a flight attendant ask over the intercom "Is there a doctor on the plane?" I was worried. Then it turned out it was for someone else.

What's next? Well we are in Lima until late January working on a couple projects: Tarrah is shooting portraits of elderly nuns from the Catholic order called the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They are German and have lived here in Lima at a convent in the back of a hospital for some 50 years. They also happen to run the orphanage that Tarrah was adopted from, which is how she got interested in the project. Some related work that she did in Reading, Pennsylvania at a retirement home for the missionary nuns is on her website: really affecting portraiture, some of it pretty harrowing, some more beatific. I'm working on writing an article on early video art for Bidoun magazine, a long-term writing project of mine that is being funded by Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation. After Peru, we're making our way to India to work collaboratively on a project related to video art and the Indian space program in the 70s. I'm preparing by collecting stamps related to Indian telecommunications satellites.

Stay tuned to Keefjnak to follow Tarrah Krajnak and Alexander Keefe's journey. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper & Abbey Meaker for Pas Un Autre. All photos and captions Copyright © 2011 Tarrah Krajnak and Alexander Keefe.  

“There is an age-long and invisible force, termed ectoplasm, re-discovered by modern science, which has met with ridicule from every walk of life."