NORBURY, Rosamond

Author Tags: Photography

With text from Bill Richardson, Norbury provided the photos for a behind-the-scenes appreciation of drag queens in Vancouver entitled Guy to Goddess: An Intimate Look at Drag Queens (Whitecap, 1994). Her previous photo book took a similar approach to cowboys and was entitled Behind the Chutes: The Mystique of the Rodeo Cowboy (Whitecap, 1993). Her visits to Cuba resulted in photographs and personalized text for Notes at the End: Cuba on the Verge (Parallax, Arsenal Pulp, 2005), with an introduction by Stephen Osborne. [See Review]

[BCBW 2005] "Photography"

Article (2005)

from BCBW
Cubans have lacked basic necessities for 50 years, mainly due to U.S. trade sanctions. That’s why tourists bring donations of sports equipment, musical instruments and school supplies.

When photographer Rosamond Norbury arrived in Havana to gather images for her third book Notes at the Edge: Cuba on the Verge (Arsenal Pulp, $21.95), she had a different approach. With the help of an openly gay photo collage artist named Eduardo, she donated bottles of foundation, pan stick, powder, lipsticks, Final Net hairspray, and jars of remover to Havana’s seldom-seen drag queens.

Here she recalls some of her visit:

“It’s not easy being gay in a machismo culture like Cuba’s, nor is it legal. I told Eduardo about the bags of makeup I’d brought and he offered to find me some drag queens. Drag culture is underground in Cuba so the shows are not advertised, and Eduardo had to ask around as to where one might be. Eventually he called me up from his neighbour’s phone to say there would be a show Saturday night.

We met across from the famous Coppelia ice cream gardens, featured in the film Strawberries and Chocolate, outside La Jara Theatre on the main street in Vedado. The fence along the sidewalk of Coppelia is known as “the bird perch” where men cruise and the word is circulated about the evening’s events. We picked up a bottle of rum because you can go anywhere with rum and people are more than happy to share. Then we made our way towards an apartment in Centro, the dense and rundown barrio that sits between Vedado and Old Havana, where a small crowd milled outside on the street. This is one of the more dangerous areas of Havana but I felt in safe hands with Eduardo. We paid five US dollars to a man at the door and climbed three flights up a dark staircase to an apartment on the roof.

It was like a typical gay bar even though it was in a private apartment. Eduardo dragged me through the crowd dancing to the booming beat: we squeezed past a line-up of men waiting for beer and went into the kitchen where the DJ was working his board beside a pot of beans boiling on the stove.

To reach the dressing room, we had to step onto a cinder block and into a sink, then climb through an open window and down a short ladder where we were greeted with a room filled with half-dressed men getting into their outfits. The walls were covered with boas and wigs and pictures of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.

I handed over the bags to a shirtless man with a fully made-up face. They dumped the bags on the bed, examined everything minutely, and shared all equally.

Finally it was show time so we climbed back through the kitchen window and joined the crowd. I wriggled up to the front of the stage: we were packed in, body-to-body, but open to the sky. All I could do was hold my camera over my head and aim in the direction of the stage.

It was really quite a dreadful show, collegial rather than professional, but they were so happy dancing, lip-syncing, and exchanging sunglasses and living their elicit life in front of an audience. I was glad that my bags of makeup had had a small hand in making the show just that much more glamorous.

The utter joy and compulsion of drag triumphed in the face of the economic difficulties and social disdain and for a few hours it was easy to forget that this was an illegal gathering.

With an introduction by Stephen Osborne, Rosamond Norbury’s Notes at the Edge: Cuba on the Verge contains 80 b&w photos and her accompanying text. Her previous titles are Behind the Chutes: The Mystique of the Rodeo Cowboy and Guy to Goddess: An Intimate Look at Drag Queens.