Kia LaBeija's First Solo Show Celebrates Love in NYC Ballroom

Kia LaBeija's First Solo Show Celebrates Love in NYC Ballroom

by Kenna McCafferty

Kia LaBeija’s first solo show, prepare my heart, is an intimate exploration of LaBeija’s experience as a queer, HIV+ positive woman of color and honored member of the ballroom community. As the former overall mother of the iconic house of LaBeija, LaBeija has been a consistent figure in the culture of NYC, and subsequently, the culture of our time.

"As an artist, I work in many mediums," LaBeija said. "I consider myself an image-maker using photography, film and collage. A performance artist utilizing dance, movement and acting. And a writer, poet and storyteller. I like to blur the lines between the ways I create. I see my photographs as performance and poetry all in the same."

"Eleven" (2015)

"A Prayer at the End, A Prayer at the Beginning" (2020)

prepare my heart includes three decades of archival imagery, ephemera, poetry, video and self-portraiture, documenting LaBeija as she is, was and will be. Titled for the emotional complexity surrounding LaBeija’s relationship with her late mother, the exhibition honors her legacy as an AIDS activist, heralding their closeness as a simultaneous expression of love and preparation for death.

"My mother, Kwan Bennett, was an AIDS activist and fought for women, children and families," LaBeija said. "This exhibition is centered around my observation that preparation is a response to great trauma, and also looking for the balance between what is beautiful and what is painful."

"Kwan's Story" (Date Unknown)

"Kwan and Kia Speaking at a Union Square Rally" (1995)

The exhibition features allusions and direct references to LaBeija’s experience with love as an HIV+ queer woman. One striking body of work, created between 2018 and 2021, depicts photos of LaBeija, alone and with her longterm partner, and imposes small text onto bare skin to combine the physical and emotional experience of the body.

“I RISKED MY LIFE FOR YOU” (2021) reads across LaBeija’s chest in one image as a reminder of a recurring statement LaBeija faced in failed romances. This sentiment is juxtaposed by "SHE KNOWS AND SHE LOVES ME EVEN MORE” (2021) over an image of her and her partner embracing, as an homage to the practice of unconditional love.



The love shared in this exhibit goes beyond LaBeija and her relationships, extending a hand to NYC's ballroom community, as well. “As a young queer person of color, ballroom was everything to me during the period I was immersed in it,” said LaBeija, whose success has landed her a role as a principal dancer in the pilot of POSE and in a series of music videos.

"I’ve always been a performer by nature, but what I could achieve as a professional dancer felt limited," she continued. "When Voguing came into my life and I began to walk balls, I felt newfound freedom. I had complete autonomy of how I wanted to express myself through movement within the language and art of Vogue. I arrived in the ballroom scene from so many white spaces, that to be amongst people of color was like breathing fresh air.”

"Our New Spokesperson, ACT UP" (1994)

"Mother's Day" (1997)

Her coming-of-age story is highlighted in prepare my heart, with visceral artifacts fleshing out intimate portraiture of LaBeija and her ballroom counterparts. A 1996 pamphlet, “Facing the Future: A Legal Handbook for Parents with HIV Disease,” is shown alongside an image of young LaBeija smiling against an ACT UP banner, for example.

"I make theatrical self-portraits as a way to process grief and emotion, to escape 'real life,' and to explore the interconnectedness between fantasy, dreams and memory," LaBeija said. "I am commenting on what it means to feel alone, to be a singular person in a world where the intersections of my identity are usually overlooked or not included at all."

"Icon Derrick Davis 'POP DIP' LaBeija" (2014)

"Celso at the Monster" (2012)

Centering LaBeija and her community, prepare my heart leaves no stone unturned and no heart untouched. The exhibition, curated by Meredith Breech in collaboration with LaBeija, will be on display at Fotografiska through May 8. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Kia LaBeija