The newest work of public art in Miami Beach, Florida, is an ode to drag. On Tuesday, city officials unveiled “Adora Vanessa Athena Fantasia,” a vibrant series of aluminum panels suspended over a block of the bustling Española Way shopping district. Each panel features a kaleidoscopic portrait inspired by local drag queens (including the four who inspired its title: Adora, Athena Dion, Fantasia Royale and Tiffany Fantasia), and is accompanied by a 30-foot-tall mural of dramatic manicures, doll-like eyelashes and full, pouty lips.
These quintessential elements in the art of drag come together as “a costume, a work outfit and a kind of armor in one,” said Persephone Von Lips, one of eleven queens who inspired the installation. “The hair, the makeup, the nails, the whole getup — when I put them on, I can walk down any street and feel the most beautiful and most confident I’ve ever been.”
“Adora Vanessa Athena Fantasia” is a work by Assume Vivid Astro Focus, or AVAF, an artist collective known for its multidisciplinary installations and psychedelic explosions of color. The City of Miami Beach commissioned the piece as the latest installment of Elevate Española, a semi-annual public art project launched in 2021.
Eli Sudbrack, the Brazilian artist who founded AVAF in New York some 20 years ago, wanted to pay tribute to Miami Beach’s bustling drag scene. He was motivated in large part by a law that Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis signed in April, which sought to limit drag performances in the state.
Named the “Protection of Children Act” by its sponsors, the law threatened venues that admitted children into “adult live performances” — a phrase widely understood to mean drag — with fines, misdemeanor charges or revoked liquor licenses. In June, a district judge temporarily blocked the law on grounds that it would “suppress the speech of drag queen performers,” and the US Supreme Court declined the state’s request for a partial stay in November. Still, attorneys for the DeSantis administration are seeking to overturn the law’s temporary block in federal appeals court.
Across the US, where at least a dozen other states have attempted to pass similar laws, drag remains a central topic in a larger culture war targeting LGBTQ rights.
“There’s still a fear in the back of our heads: What are they going to do next?” said Von Lips. Historically, the drag community has given refuge to trans and queer people rejected by society or their families, she added, “and I just think it’s insane that people are trying to take that away from us.”
The spectacle of drag
After AVAF was chosen for the Elevate Española commission earlier this year, the New York-based Sudbrack began his research online, reaching out to Tiffany Fantasia, a veteran on the Miami drag scene, to learn more about the local community. The artist also asked a friend in Miami to send him a list of iconic performers from both the South Beach and Downtown Miami scenes, which ultimately included the aforementioned queens, as well as Karla Croqueta, Juice Love Dion, Lady Paraiso, Power Infiniti, Regina Black and TP Lords.
Looking to the queens’ Instagrams for reference, Sudbrack said, “I started making drawings out of details of their personas: (the) makeup, lipstick, wigs and nails, so that the central panels are a mixture of different drag queens put together as a super powerful image.” The composite portraits of each panel represent the overall community rather than individuals, energized by the psychedelic hues and patterns for which AVAF is known.
Sudbrack’s mural, meanwhile, used the colors of the Progress Pride flag as its palette. The piece zooms in on features of individual queens — the faces of Athena Dion and TP Lords; the manicured hands of Regina Black, for example — rendering them in a cartoonish style of graphic outlines.
“It was very important, if I’m going to do a project in Miami right now, to honor this practice, no matter what,” Sudbrack said. “Our own practice has always been about self-expression and freedom, and the artistry of drag is about that — to be whoever you want to be.”
Lissette Garcia Arrogante, director of tourism and culture for the City of Miami Beach, said AVAF was an ideal choice for the commission, citing “all the vibrancy and vitality of the colors in their work.”
“Miami Beach proudly stands as one of the world’s most welcoming LGBTQ destinations, where the drag scene thrives despite Florida’s misguided efforts,” added Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez, reflecting on the work’s content. “We emphatically ‘elevate’ and celebrate diversity, resisting any attempts to dim our community’s spirit.”
Despite the governor’s efforts, Tiffany Fantasia said she’s confident in her right to remain in drag. “Anything is possible with these extreme Republicans, but we all know at the end of the day, it is not constitutional for them to do this type of stuff,” she said. “It’s a violation of freedom of expression”
At the Tuesday unveiling, she posed for pictures beneath the installation, announcing to the small crowd, “That’s me, y’all!”