Kaj-Anne Pepper and Carla Rossi: Merging Drag and Fine Art

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By Shaley Howard You have probably seen events with drag artists Kaj-Anne Pepper and Carla Rossi headlining. They are quickly becoming icons in the queer community for their not-so-subtle mashing together of drag, fine art, dance, political critique, and performance. For a lot of us it’s new territory, and a far cry from the birthdays and bachelorette parties we’ve had at Darcelle XV. So what is this new incarnation of drag? And what can we learn in order to appreciate all of the nuances it has to offer? PQ Monthly sat down with these two artists to learn more about the glittering and probing world of their performances.
I see myself as trying to confuse the signals, not emulate women. Drag exposes the idea that everything is a construction.
What is the difference between more traditional drag and the drag you create? Pepper: I think that tradition sometimes calcifies. There’s certain roles and identifications that we have now that push up against what they are promoting and presenting because they haven’t changed with it. My work is contemporary dance and performance. More traditional drag such as Darcelle is also performing arts, but it’s not performance art. Can you talk about how drag operates within your artist practice? Carla: I see myself as trying to confuse the signals, not emulate women. Drag exposes the idea that everything is a construction; they’re all just different cues from different categories that we select to say one thing. You can show that you can cross the wires and be something different completely. What are some of the key themes your work explores? Carla: It’s about constructing this identity. The fact that being a mixed race person and genderqueer—those are inherently political topics, unfortunately, because of the world that we live in. That’s why I’m drawn to this kind of drag and why I do the work I do. It’s my way of exploring it and working it out onstage. Pepper: Doing drag is inherently about gender and power. All drag is political in nature but that doesn’t mean all drag queens are politically conscious. When you’re making work about identity, the line between the identity and the artwork become blurred. To cross genders and mock power and power figures is inherent in the mimicry. Part of that is comedy and part of that is us trying to grapple with systems that are larger than us. One overtly political video I made was Hillary Clinton fisting Donald Trump on stage. By doing that it’s my way of accessing the power that they have and making fun of it with an audience who might even categorically have less power than me. Can you talk about what it's like to straddle that line between your work viewed as fine arts versus entertainment? Carla: I try not to label myself as an artist or entertainer. I think that often when something is labeled as art, it becomes this idea of [inaccessibility] for certain people. Drag has always been sort of an underground queer art form because of class issues—because of availability, safety and space we had to perform in nightclubs. That’s why it gets labeled as this nightlife, underground gay thing versus being seen as an actual art form. Pepper: I don’t have a lot of control over how it’s viewed; only where I set my work. Fine art drag queens are having their national moment. Queer people, gay people and gender artists have always been around institutions. It’s just that now we’re more visible and valued in our culture. What is your hope for how people engage with your work? Carla: I want people to laugh and forget the shitty world we live in. Even if I’m critiquing and referencing all the trauma and horror out there, I want people to be able to laugh. Pepper: I like to think I turn tragic into magic and trauma into drama. It’s important for me to be with the femme grotesque in myself and be with grief. I think underneath all of my humor, absurdity or wackiness, there’s a level of grief and acknowledgement. Hoping there will be a transformation with myself and the audience.
If our work looks political it’s because we’re queer persons trying to figure it out in our artwork and lives.
What is most commonly misunderstood about your practice and performances? Pepper: That we make lots of money. And straight people think I’m a stripper. I consider my drag practice also a dance practice. It just doesn’t look like Oregon Ballet Theater. Carla: That people think I’m trying to be a good drag queen! Or they say, “You’re so beautiful!†and I think, “Am I?†Because Carla’s a monster, designed to be a sewer creature. I also think some people can’t read through my jokes when I’m playing this white lady who’s actually mocking white supremacy. I’ve had people ask why I think white supremacy and racism is funny. They get a little too “Portland†about it [and they miss the point]. So much of what you do is politicized. Why is this important? Pepper: If our work looks political it’s because we’re queer persons trying to figure it out in our artwork and lives. Carla: My work is outright political. As a Native person, a queer, a gender confused person, mixed race person, feminist; these are all political issues. It’s weird because they’re literally just issues about conditions of my existence. It’s how I actively depower and digest it. In fact, I’m constantly thinking about it, especially with the Trump administration. I took a minute-long shit on this giant head of Donald Trump on the screen on stage when Carla couldn’t use the restroom because of Trump—this was right after the trans bathroom law. She bent over and had animated poop emoji’s fly on him. That is what I do to get over the sheer horror of what we’re living through.
Tickets for Kaj-Anne Pepper’s upcoming Diva Practice, Solo performance can be found at divapracticesolo.brownpapertickets.com. For Carla Rossi’s Queer Horror Halloween tickets visit www.queer-horror.com. Photos by Gia Goodrich.