Over the coming months, we’ll use this space to explore the ways in which, as Michael Roberson says, “the Ballroom community has something to say about being human in the struggle for freedom in the face of catastrophe.” At the crux of this truth sits an age-old binary: struggle-freedom. Let’s zoom in.
The great critical thinkers seem to agree that any freedom worth its weight should come with a caveat: this fight will be fought uphill—never what we want to hear. Frederick Douglas said it more plainly: “Without struggle, there is no progress.” As a formerly enslaved abolitionist—the embodiment of that which he speaks—here Douglas feels his most credible and absolute, specifically referencing the ultimate progress: ontological and bodily autonomy—freedom. Most would agree with Douglas, while also praying that suffering for progress actually be the smartphone sales of existence; unfair working conditions aren’t required, per se, but chances are…
Still, the dichotomy of struggling for freedom appears in the world as endlessly as the golden ratio. In the phantom construction of the pyramids. The build-up to summer muscle. Crafting paper cranes. Every single aspect of abolition. The miracle that is your Phd. That trophy won for walking Realness. The Messiah. They all require some amount of hunkered down, focused, deliberate sweat equity. Then we transcend. The question (for our purposes): is suffering an essential catalyst for groundbreaking art? Or more precisely, must the artist struggle in order to create works that move the culture? What if it’s all happening at once? This year, NYC artist and Ballroom community organizer Charly Dominguez has both been through it and broken through. Despite living conditions that threaten his safety and attempt to erase his nuanced identity, he finds liberation in Ballroom—his true community—and creates art that radically reimagines their place in the world.
“Through art I get to develop a second skin, as this other-worldly being,” says Charly. “When I started I called it, ‘Tribal, futuristic, bizarre.’”
Yet, as much as suffering exists, Charly Dominguez’s passion and his people have gotten him through his going-through-it. Since he was just a kid in Harlem, he’s cultivated an art practice that insists on the liberation of Black and brown queer bodies, many from his Ballroom family who were also his colleagues in HIV/AIDS awareness and outreach work. In its current manifestation, Charly’s art synthesizes mediums, using paint, human canvases, fashion, video, photography and more to push the envelope toward better-reflecting intersectional desire. These creations are provocative and more challenging than the oblique ad hoc representations we’re fed in pop culture, like breadcrumbs on the way to self-recognition. Charly’s work satiates.
“Our ancestral custom is body art, which was our first attire, our first way of recognizing tribes and people from different places,” says Charly.
His series of body paintings are next level. In them, he draws ornate lines and patterns basically extracted from the mother-realm (past, present, and future—Wakanda Forever), or imagined queer comic books, and inscribes them onto hard bodies. A Black gay superhero, still chiselled, still vigilant, more capable. Charly as a facial-haired femme queen, draped in desert scarves. A butch queen dipped in pure silver with a crown of antlers who is a dead-ringer for that elusive archetype haunting your dreams all these years. Every piece is transcendent, all blush-inducing. Through saturated pallets and laser-cut abs, Charly gives us a healthy dose of what we want and didn’t even know we’d given up on seeing in public spaces—a spectrum of LGBTQ BIPOC sensuality as true and singular as a fingerprint. They elegantly straddle the fine line between intimate and exhibitionist.
A more compelling image in this inside/outside vein is of his Gay Mother and Pose actress, Tyra Maison Margiela, Icon Overseer of the Haus of Maison-Margiela and Ballroom Hall of Famer, a.k.a. Dominique Jackson. In it, Charly stands next to her with loving authority, evoking that now famous shot of Keith Haring and Grace Jones, maestro and Amazonian muse, except here with Charly and Tyra, the archetype returns to its rightful indigenous source. Similar to Douglas, they are the living embodiments of reparations.
“It started with my vivid imagination and expression of my spirituality,” says Charly. “I had visions, and I wanted to be able to adorn myself in them. Then I started getting requests from other people to adorn them as well. That’s how fluidly body art became my main medium.”
Charly’s pathway to Ball Culture was at first traditional, taking him from Hetrick-Martin Institute to balls to walking face, because he was young and cute and was like, sure, why not. But face requires a level of internal pomp, and Charly is quiet but not brooding, nice but not gregarious, and way talented yet modest in demeanour. However, he practically lights up talking about the category he’d secretly always wanted to walk—“Bizarre”, which is a category that’s exactly what it sounds like. He never ended up walking it, but the costume he envisioned making for the category would have been dazzling.
“I’ve always secretly been in love with Bizarre. It’s been my favorite category in the scene,” he says. “For this one ball the theme was ‘Elements of the MTA.’ You had to bring in whatever elements from the subway system… I was going to form a train with lights, graffiti, and Metro cards were going to be my attire. So, after coming out driving the train, I would step out of the doorway, and you would see me in this gown and a giant head wrap all made out of metro cards.”
Even if he didn’t walk Bizarre, his current mode of exuberant future-forward art production scratches that itch and is really just a carbon copy of Charly’s own intersectional upbringing. A true global citizen, he happily revels in the complexity of his origin.
“It’s a long and funny story. I was raised between Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Dominican Republic,” says Dominguez. “My mother and her sisters and brothers were the first generation to come here after my grandmother and my father brought them. Then we were the first born in the United States. So, I was actually born in Harlem Hospital.”
There was never a time Charly wasn’t reaching for the sky by way of the arts. “I feel like I’ve been an artist all my life,” he says. “As a child, I was really into the arts.” Luckily, New York is a mecca for artsy, othered kids. He started his creative education early, immersing himself in city-supported arts & culture programs. He plowed through them, going from the school at PS. 28 where he loved dancing, to tagging [graffiti], to poetry, to after-school program Arts Connection, to Harlem School of the Arts, to Hetrick-Martin Institute, to working as a community health specialist in HIV/AIDS awareness at GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis), and health work at large—all pipelines to heaven, i.e. the House-Ball scene. His Ballroom family and his health worker experience helped infuse his art with themes of freedom that explode norms surrounding sex, gender, race, geography, sci-fi and more —evolutions that should be heralded. Yet, as we all know, our freedoms can be received as audacious, even threatening. Unfortunately, this is especially the case in Charly’s predominantly Black, heteronormative neighbourhood in the Bronx.
“People threatened me based specifically on the fact that I’m a gay man painting other naked, gay men,” he says, “And I displayed both masculine and feminine qualities, so I was a target in the neighborhood. It was hard to step outside looking a certain way.”
His neighbours’ aggressions seemed to stem from a range of intolerances since Charly sits at the intersection of many identities, being a gay, Afro-Latino Ballroom Artist who, because of his background, practices aspects of Santeria, Yoruba, Catholicism, and other spiritualities. In the greater world these attributes might be deemed ”multi-faceted, self-aware, noble” but at home, they marked Charly as a target.
“There’s a more underhanded, insidious way in which people can harass and threaten you. I come from different ancestral spirituality practices, and they deemed me as evil. They follow you and do things to keep you in check and out of sight. It’s treacherous. They were dismissive of my belief systems. It was painful. It was dehumanizing. When that happens, you start to think differently about yourself.”
His studio was his apartment, and his art was one of the sources of anger, so by proxy, the very idea of Charly’s art became his greatest threat. His journey wasn’t so much a struggle for freedom—the two were happening in tandem, like a cruel paradox. The stress became untenable, making it hard to work and be well at home. It hit an apex earlier this year, when Charly was admitted to the hospital, requiring multiple stents in his already heavy heart. His time admitted helped, which seems obvious in terms of healing, but is incredible in that major surgery became his salvation from being home. And, of course, his Ballroom family, The Haus of Maison-Margiela, showed up every day, and once he was discharged, found resources that provided him with a safe house to mend for several more weeks without stress.
“You get to the point where you’re like, No, these people are violating me. They’re violating my voice, my freedom and right to express myself,” says Charly. “But thankfully, I’ve had a good support network of people who do love me, who share their affirmations and genuine concern for me, value me beyond my sexual orientation, my gender display, or even my spirituality.”
Charly plans to continue building up his signature brand, exploring more elements of “Tribal, futuristic, bizarre,” and experiments in fashion, and television production—of course using his friends and family as his muses to become our heroes. Through his life and art, we can indeed see the more promising side of Douglas’ and the Buddha’s wisdoms on the inevitability of suffering in our lives. It is fairly prevalent. Yet, without the maker’s scoreboard at our disposal, any absolute of its intrinsic linkage to freedom, or their order of operations is not really on the table, perhaps it isn’t even the point. What we might be closer to knowing is that in the inevitability yet impermanence of suffering, together the freedoms of love and creativity can be our inevitable salvation.