Four days into February, Brooklyn drag queen Merrie Cherry had already posted photos of herself transformed into portraits of Harriet Tubman, Michelle Obama, Josephine Baker and Naomi Campbell. Displayed alongside their source images, the visual tributes made up the first entries into what has become a veritable Instagram gallery of influential Black women.
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DAY 3- Joséphine Baker was born on June 3rd, 1906 and died April 12th, she was an American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. Her career was centered primarily in Europe, mostly in her adopted France. Baker was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics. During her early career, Baker was renowned as a dancer and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. Her performance in the revue Un vent de folie in 1927 caused a sensation in Paris. Her costume, consisting of only a girdle of artificial bananas, became an iconic image and a symbol of the Jazz Age and the 1920s. Baker was celebrated by artists and intellectuals of the era, who variously dubbed her the “Black Venus”, the "Black Pearl", the "Bronze Venus", and the "Creole Goddess". Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she renounced her U.S. citizenship and became a French national after her marriage to French industrialist. She was known for aiding the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968 she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the United States by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. After thinking it over, Baker declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children. _________________________________ Makeup and hair by ME Photo by @neoncalypso Outfit by @highwastedstudio – – #blackhistorymonth #americanhistory #blacklivesmatter #blackqueens #joesphinebaker #instaphoto #blackandqueer #blackisbeautiful #blackexcellence #drag
The photos are collected under the banner of “Black Women Empowerment Project,” a series created by Cherry to highlight a different culturally significant Black woman every day throughout the month of February. Since launching the project, Cherry has released 11 such images, filling her Instagram feed with the faces and biographies of women such as Lorraine Hansberry, Oprah Winfrey, Marsha P. Johnson and, most recently, Zora Neale Hurston.
The dramatic transformations, which took on average an hour to complete, pay homage to figures who, as Cherry described, “broke the glass ceiling for Black women.” In an announcement post, Cherry noted that the project has been in the works for five years. Finally brought together through a community effort, the series is set to continue through the remainder of Black History Month.
In celebration of “Black Women Empowerment Project,” ALL ARTS caught up with Cherry about how the series came to be, the women featured, the team behind the recreations and more.
Can you describe the concept behind your digital series “Black Women Empowerment Project”?
I felt it was important to highlight some of the strongest members of our society who still stood up strong, regardless of how the rest of the world treated them. Black women are the most marginalized group in the world; this was my way of saying, “I see you, thank you, and I stand with you.” I wanted to garner attention to forgotten heroes and to cement the legacy of more well-known figures. It felt like the best way to celebrate Black History Month.
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DAY 5- Marsha P. Johnson (August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992) was an American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen and later on a transgendered woman. Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Johnson was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. A founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Johnson co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. A popular figure in New York City's gay and art scene, Johnson modeled for Andy Warhol, and performed onstage with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches. Known for decades as a welcoming presence in the streets of Greenwich Village, Johnson was known as the "mayor of Christopher Street". From 1987 through 1992, Johnson was an AIDS activist with ACT UP. In the 1980s Johnson continued her street activism as a respected organizer and marshal with ACT UP. In 1992, when George Segal's Stonewall memorial was moved to Christopher Street from Ohio to recognize the gay liberation movement, Johnson commented, "How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we're all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we're all in this rat race together." ———————————————————- Makeup and Outfit by ME Hair by @chris2134567 Photo by @curlygoldie ———————————————————- #blackhistorymonth #marshapjohnson #mua #blackgirlmagic #blackqueens #blackwomenempowermentproject #queen #merriecherry #brooklyndrag #draglife #blackandqueer #translivesmatter #legend #stonewall #herstory
How did you choose who you featured?
There are women I covered that I have been obsessed with as a youngster, like Josephine Baker and Oprah Winfrey, and there are some women I never knew existed. I did this project to educate others and myself. I wanted to know more about my heroes and find ones that broke the glass ceiling for black women to be more. After all, you can’t have American history without African-American history.
The transformations are absolutely amazing. What kind of team are you working with? I saw on one post that you mentioned Caleb Krieg, Christopher Perez and Neon Calypso.
After five years of trying, this project finally came to fruition. I found a team that was willing to offer the time and focus needed. Christopher Perez styled 19 wigs and even flattened my hair for another look that will be coming out soon. Caleb Krieg made 16 looks for me. Some of them were period pieces that were just for the project and I could never use again, but there are a few gems I get to have as an addition to my closet. Neon Calypso joined the team later. I was doing the looks at the strangest time, sometimes after a gig at 4 a.m., 10 a.m. before a brunch, or at a friend’s house with a very small window of time. Neon, offered themselves to me as much as they could — to take a picture, help me get ready, and be that eye to make sure everything looked good.
Aside from these three people, I truly had my community help me get this done. I had people lend me items and let me use their homes to photograph in. This was a true community project, which makes it extra special.
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DAY 8 – Oprah Gail Winfrey was born Orpah Gail Winfrey, January 29, 1954, she is an American media executive and the only Black person with their name attached to a television channel, actress, talk show host, television producer, and philanthropist. She is best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, broadcast from Chicago, which was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history and ran in national syndication for 25 years from 1986 to 2011. Dubbed the "Queen of All Media", she was the richest African American of the 20th century and North America's first black multi-billionaire and has been ranked the greatest black philanthropist in American history. She has also been sometimes ranked as the most influential woman in the world. By the mid-1990s, Winfrey moved away from the tabloid-style of her tall show and had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, mindfulness, and spirituality. Though she was criticized for unleashing a confession culture, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and having an emotion-centered approach, she stayed true to the path she felt need to be paved. Winfrey had also emerged as a political force in the 2008 presidential race, delivering about one million votes to Barack Obama in the razor-close 2008 Democratic primary. In 2013, Winfrey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Oprah is hitting the road to promote wellness around the country. The aptly named “Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus”. The media mogul is partnering with Weigh Waters for the national nine-city tour to make 2020 “the year of transformation and triumph.” Check her out in a city near you. —————————————————————— Makeup by ME Photo by @richardcortez Hair by @chris2134567 Outfit by @caleb.krieg —————————————————————– #blackhistorymonth #oprahwinfrey #blacklivesmatter #blackqueens #blackwomenempowermentproject #bhm #february #merriecherry #instaphoto #brooklyndrag #draglife #blackandqueer #blackpower #drag
How long does each tribute take to create?
This has been a huge learning experience for me. As a drag queen, I love the idea of high drag. There is nothing biological about my makeup. During this project, I had to study the makeup of each woman, and I tried my hardest to shape my face the way their face looked in each photo. Some of these women were not even wearing makeup, so to make a look using makeup to look like you are not wearing makeup was a task in itself. If I were doing my regular drag face, I could do it in 30 minutes if I were in a hurry, but on average I took an hour, or a bit more, to complete each look.