A gathering of people in multicolored lipstick stand in front of microphones. Is this an a-cappella group? Well, in some ways yes, but also… definitely not.
It is one of Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions. The performers are arranged like an orchestra, expressing different tonalities of “shade.” Together the organized and schematized compilation of movements and gestures presents something akin to a collage of human mannerisms conveying a singular idea; shade, a vaguely judgmental and negative feeling about another person (See also “to throw shade”).
Rashaad Newsome has been creating art and performance using elements from Ball Culture since 2005. The ballroom scene, a space created for and by marginalized queer people living in New York (specifically queer and trans youth of color), began in the 1980’s. The ballroom scene is divided into houses that serve as alternative family structures, as most famously captured in the documentary Paris is Burning.
The glitzy events are an opportunity for the different houses to show off their vogueing skills, outfit composition, and general glamour and fierceness, as they compete in different categories. Newsome’s work, drawing inspiration from his involvement in the ballroom scene, is an exploration and celebration of black queer life in America. It is all about presentation, pageantry, and recontextualizing presuppositions about black culture by using unexpected forms and elements, such as in his piece The Tournament from 2011. The tournament is a rap battle formally presented in the style of a medieval court, complete with thrones, crowns, a somber procession of horns, and rappers competing to reign.
Newsome’s work covers a wide range of media. His collages and sculptural pieces similarly explore themes of regality and opulence, while incorporating elements of hip-hop culture including rims, yachts and bling. The vitality, formal rigor, and dramatic opulence of Newsome’s work make it clever and captivating. He has a keen understanding for the contexts in which his work is being shown – sparking life within the walls of museums with live vogueing competitions, organizing shade in the form of an orchestra, or hanging rims up in white wall galleries.