In the warm glow of St. Mark’s Church last fall, Kia LaBeija lay on her belly. She was wearing her grandmother’s daffodil-colored dress surrounded by yellow roses she’d placed in a circle, kicking her legs like a child, saying aloud the words she was writing in a letter to her mother.
It was a beautiful tableau that brought together Kia’s family history, her photographer’s eye, her Alvin Ailey dance training, and an ability to convey knowledge through her body that she gleaned during years of voguing for the iconic House of LaBeija. The multidisciplinary work, Earthwalk, that Kia shared that night with the St. Mark’s audience, which included her girlfriend, portrayed the emotional upheavals of living with loss: When Kia was fourteen, her mother, an HIV activist and advocate, died of AIDS-related complications, leaving memories and a household of belongings for Kia to hang on to, including home videos, writings, and passages of a journal that Kia shared as part of her performance.
“It is about legacy, really,” Kia explains. “What is it that we leave behind? Our Earthwalk is our life, the time we spend on earth with all of our teachers, which I think includes our surroundings, the obstacles we face, and how we deal with them.”
I’ve caught Kia at a moment of transition: She’s recently left New York, where she lives with her father, to stay with her brother in Los Angeles. She has just completed an intense five years in which she went from club kid trying to get her bachelor’s degree to global vogue star and New York art world wunderkind. In that time, she has maintained an intense pace of performing, exhibiting, and public speaking around the city and the nation. Now she’s taking a few weeks off and looking back at what has worked in order to move forward.
Earthwalk was presented during a night of performances and readings put together by Pamela Sneed as part of “Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now,” a six-week-long Danspace platform co-curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and fellow dancer Will Rawls. Houston-Jones had spotted clips of Kia voguing on YouTube, but says for him they didn’t convey the completeness of her artistry. “Her gifts as a performer and a visual artist, plus how she draws on her life, is remarkable,” he says. “The totality of all of this in one young individual is singular.”
For as long as Kia can remember, she’s been seeking cultural representations of anyone who looked like her: a queer woman of color. She felt a spark of kinship when she first saw the drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning while in high school. By then she already knew classmates who belonged to various Houses, but had yet to walk herself. Eventually a co-worker at Webster Hall invited her to become more involved in the ball scene. It ended up being a revelation. “As a young brown person born with HIV, I began to meet many others [who] acquired the virus,” Kia told the website BH Is Voguing last year. “It was the first time since my mother’s death that I felt I was not alone.”
Kia ultimately found a home, and a new sense of family, in ballroom. “I began using LaBeija, a name from one of the founding Houses of the scene, in 2012 after I walked the Latex Ball, my first ball under the name,” she says. “It’s not that my government name [Benbow] isn’t special, it’s that I like the way LaBeija sounds, and [it’s] a historically Black Queer last name.”
Two years later, Kia made her art world debut at La MaMa Galleria in the Visual AIDS exhibition “Ephemera as Evidence,” which included “24,” a series of self-portraits in which Kia uses personal narrative, clothing, location, and her body to explore family, history, and identity. In one key image, Kia and Mommy, Kia lies on her bedroom floor in the focused pool of a spotlight, clutching a framed photo of her mother. She wears a red cocktail dress and metallic stilettos, head turned to the viewer, telegraphing beauty and sadness, a skill mastered by such beauties of bygone eras as Marilyn Monroe and Paris Is Burning’s Venus Xtravaganza. In her photographs, as when voguing, Kia plays dress-up, presenting a desirable version of herself so that HIV-positive viewers may see themselves, through her, as beautiful and powerful. “Showing the private in public changes the narrative of what things mean,” Kia explains. “When it comes to dealing with loss, living with HIV, or anything, really, the trick is to own your story, and then be the one to tell it.”
At the New School, from which she graduated in 2016, she had the chance to take a class with George Pitts, the Vibe founding photo director who passed away in March. Pitts was among the first to help Kia tell her story using her camera, she says, pushing her to move past making pretty pictures and to make herself vulnerable in her work.
That work has led Kia to begin exploring the history of her birth family, specifically looking at race, often a source of confusion for her growing up. Her African-American father, from Bed-Stuy, instilled a racial pride in Kia, teaching her never to forget she was Black. Meanwhile, in the years before her death, Kia’s mother was just starting to claim her Native American and Filipino ancestry, parts of herself that had been downplayed during her own childhood. “If I am going to talk about Blackness, about being a woman of color, then I want to know, what are the struggles of those who came before me? What did they see in their lifetimes?”
Kia got an opportunity to explore those questions in 2015 when the Studio Museum in Harlem commissioned her to create a photograph for its postcard series. In her image, In Search of the Sweet Life // Kia Labeija on Sugar Hill, she stands sturdy on the top step of a Harlem brownstone stoop, wearing her grandmother’s form-fitting golden dress. Beside her is a suitcase that belonged to her great-aunt, who came north from Virginia with her sister during the Great Migration, and who ended up opening a diner in Harlem. While the photograph is still a self-portrait, she takes up less space in the frame, pulling the camera back to include the larger context in which her body exists.
Currently, Kia is also reconnecting with her family-by-choice, returning to the House of LaBeija after a year’s absence, now as the overall House mother, which involves representing the House across the country and engaging in community-building work. For Kia, the new role is especially meaningful: “I am the first and only cisgender woman to hold the title, and I have big shoes to fill.” Previous mothers have included Moldavia LaBeija and Pepper LaBeija, whose influences cast long shadows. As part of her process, Kia is reaching out to her elders in the House. “I have a lot of respect for those who have been members for many years,” she says, “and are the core of what LaBeija means.”
No matter what direction her work takes, Kia will continue to turn to her mother’s memory as a powerful presence. “As I make work about my mother, it’s like a continuation of our relationship,” Kia writes in the last email I get from her before she goes off the grid. “I get to know her a little bit better, and in that I get to know myself a little bit better.”